Whispers on Contraband: The Chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”

BY Nicholas Bornholt


Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff

‒ Bob Dylan


To write of music is to be lost for words. Songcraft can seem more an afflatus for the poetic than a site for critical reflection. To transcribe Mozart or Bach, one could bridge the critical void by turning to the centuries-old system of western musical notation, through which music can literally be ‘written’. An erudite enough eye can somehow hear Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” by reading symbols on a page. It is almost impossible to do this with Blind Willie McTell’s “I Got The [To] Cross The River Jordan.”


In any attempt to write of great blues artists like McTell, it is inevitable that their musical corpora are brought in all their square beauty to the round hole of musical (and/or literary) criticism. The indefinability that one encounters when trying to transcribe certain songs and styles is succinctly defined in Amiri Baraka’s Black Music (2010), when he writes: “A printed musical example of an Armstrong solo, or of a Thelonious Monk solo, tells us almost nothing except the futility of formal musicology when dealing with jazz.”[1] This is something one can attest to when looking at manufactured sheet music, or vocal transcriptions of McTell’s “River Jordan” (there are no original renderings by the artist), or even Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Such songs are simultaneously simple (technically) and indefinable robust (aesthetically). This disjunction renders something critically beneficial, an ambiguous space within which to shape narrative and manufacture one’s own meaning.


The aptly named Bob Dylan album Infidels (1983) shares its year of release with Blues in the Dark, a fully compiled, posthumous album by the elusive bluesman Blind Willie McTell. Infidels heralds the end of Dylan’s ‘Christian Trilogy,’ a period somehow unfaithful to the status of his wider oeuvre, and isolated in its style of narrative simplicity. Whilst the albums may be highly listenable – they largely lack the sophistication that marks Dylan’s other works as literary ‒ their central tenets largely form around the acceptance of Christ, or God, or both. Conversely the tracks of Infidels begin to rekindle a familiarity, revisiting Dylan the story-teller and literary mind.


On the page, the lyrics of Infidels have a quality and depth of intertextuality absent from Dylan’s writing in the preceding years, but the lyrical invigoration is at times poorly matched by the album’s musical production and inorganic percussion. Dylan has said before that his music should be compared to other contemporary works and not to his own catalog[2] – even so, Infidels is less remarkable than Dylan’s more celebrated albums, except, perhaps, for one song that did not make the final cut.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, this land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem


“Blind Willie McTell” captures a masque of Bob Dylan largely unworn in the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s. The song is ethereal and timeless, and yet it is lost in time. It is a folk ballad, a blues cry, it hints at gospel but lacks sermonic divinity. The poetic ambiguity in the lyrics is carried by a vocal authenticity that does not characterize Dylan’s voice on Infidels. There is also a righteousness, absent in the ‘Christian Trilogy’; a clarity and a power not heard for many years. Where the tracks of Infidels can detract and distract from the lyrical nuances, “Blind Willie McTell”’s musical character (Dylan’s piano and Mark Knopfler’s lone guitar) highlight the beauty of the wordplay, and the pain of the implied subject matter.


Through its lyrical and musical ambiguity, “Blind Willie McTell” asks much of the listener. It is a demand made only sporadically in Dylan’s work of the late 70s and early 80s, yet the song languished in silence and obscurity until 1991 – a whisper on contraband cassettes and vinyl. Dylan claims the song was never finished, though we might wonder if he alone can decide that. This paper explores the depth of this exceptional bootleg and links it back to the ‘tripartite’ fusion of his literary works ‒ music, voice, and lyrics ‒ to glimpse the methodical process of historical and literary pastiche Dylan utilizes to construct his most illuminating narrative worlds. It will highlight a conceptual upending of history and time made possible by the song’s portrayals of duality, misrepresentation and misdirection. It will be proposed that this thematic upheaval leads the listener to question assumed absolutes like cultural identity, hierarchy, fiction and fact. Dylan’s protean narration uses intertext and the listener’s perceived historical sense to create a slippage between the reality of a sensual environment and subjectivity, creating a frailty in the ‘inviolable divide’[3] between listener and subject. Consequently, the ambient world of the listener and the literary world of the song become inexorably blurred.


The structure of the song embodies a similar complexity: though loosely based on the traditional score of a blues standard called “St James Infirmary Blues,” it does not adopt with any precision a twelve bar blues structure. The slippage of Mark Knopfler’s Em into a flat fifth seems a beautiful improvisation by a talented guitarist, rather than an intentional blues paean, yet it perfectly matches the lyrics. Similarly, the final narrator “gazing out the window of the St James Hotel” is the unlikely element that weaves together the song’s lyrical polarity, where the seemingly aporetic and absolute elements of the narrative timeline blur together.


Through “Blind Willie McTell”, this article exposes a social historicity that engenders ‘otherness’, as manifested in the racial presuppositions omnipresent in Dylan’s tribute, and in the blues as a musical form. The song’s biographical nature (the white singer exploring the Black subject) signposts how questions of authenticity can be deferred to a body – not just Blind Willie McTell’s work, but McTell himself – allowing Dylan to operate in a fabricated world of evocative subject-matter necessary for a legitimate blues aesthetic. This corporeal borrowing, or ventriloquizing, interrogates how ‘Blackness’ is perpetuated as a myth within the blues that conjures artistic validity, at the cost of further disenfranchising the bodily reality already marginalized outside the artform. Who is more well known: Blind Willie McTell or “Blind Willie McTell?” Here, the fluid narration takes on another critical role, providing a metaphorical personification for shifting perception, and approaching the duality of race in art and life through not just a different persona, but through something that bell hooks deems critical to decolonizing Black images: a different paradigm, an “outlaw rebel vision”[4]


Gotta Serve Somebody

The 1984 bootleg(s) of “Blind Willie McTell” alternate between “body” and “one” in the chorus, “nobody” and “no one” can “sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”. The beauty of this original rendering is the play created between the two terms (alone and in tandem) ‒ the polarity of “one” as a singular anonymous individual, and “body” as a cumulative group of people or work. Alternately, there is “body” as the singular corporeal vessel and “one” as the self-aware, rational and objective mind of the individual ‒ the polarity of identity and anonymity.


The sociologist Erving Goffman asserts that the body is a site of knowing[5], a thing to be observed, and to be utilized as a subjective tool for immersion and ethnographic understanding. But where participation becomes textualized there is a marked shift in the meaning of body – again, from the individual to the whole. For the theme of “Blind Willie McTell” this constitutes a shift from an individual, to an idea of what that individual represents; a collection, or a corpus, an arbiter with fragile individual connotations. As Dylan sings about McTell (and more importantly as he sings about the song’s broader subject matter), he exposes the fragility of textual (musical) homage, the empirical nature of song-as-text, and the difficulty of anthologizing that which cannot be posthumous – whether it be the blues of McTell (the corpus that outlives the body (“hear the undertaker’s bell”)), or the darker concerns in the body of the song itself.


Through the homonymic interplay of body, “Blind Willie McTell”’s lyrics conjure distance and ambiguity, while revealing a deep knowledge of the blues’ history at work in the broader subject(s) that populate its vistas. By incorporating a kind of ‘narrative buffer’, Dylan shows an understanding of the world he is creating while submitting to his own fragility; as a voice echoing from an alien world ‒ “And we all want what’s his”. The certainty of Dylan’s chorus places him among the mythologizers and biographers, separating him from the broader subject (the blues) and his specific subject (Blind Willie McTell). Dylan highlights the undermined nature of his authorial authenticity inside the song by distancing himself from anY message other than the song’s central tenet, allowing the listener to create their own story-world. This decentralizing of the narrator highlights how blues music is foremost a character piece focused on, and authenticated by, the narrator’s physical body, but that body is legitimized by the preconceptions and expectations of the listener. Joel Rudinow’s enquiry in “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” (1994) posits the question that we need: “who can legitimately claim to understand the blues?” Moreover, who can speak authoritatively about their interpretation?[6] In other words: who knows who can sing the blues, and whether they sing them as well as Blind Willie McTell?


The body synonymous with blues mythology is central to this investigation, its incarnation serving as the stabilizing thematic in a musical form otherwise imbued with plasticity. Emerging from the original blues character singing on the corner of W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues”, the body that sings the blues tends not to be autobiographical ‒ the Beale Street blues singer and Handy could not be more disparate. Rather, the ‘bluesman’ tends to be an anonymous figure, a downtrodden savant hollering truth to any who will listen. This bodily myth was popularized by the critical investigations of northern whites with minimal exposure to the blues in utero, forming the basis for Marybeth Hamilton’s exposed myth of “impassioned voices echoing with pain and privation, emanating from a flat, water logged, primitive landscape seemingly untouched by the modern world.”[7] The reality of the blues could not be more contradictory; the successful musician W.C. Handy popularized and monetized the form in the early 20th century. Known as “The Father of the Blues,” he was a formally qualified, well-educated, affluent businessman whose training allowed his compositions to imitate the musical structure he recognized in blues’ styling, his understanding of the blues as a body.


Handy remarks in his autobiography that his blues was based on “primitive” music popular in the work and street songs of southern Blacks; as he puts it, “a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot.” He considered his now recognizable musical style as pioneering, transcribing “flat thirds and sevenths (now called blue notes)” into the score where the “prevailing key was major.” (96) His transcription was singular and eccentric, a pastiche of various established and widely performed blues songs. Using “primitive” to describe such a nuanced synthesis of source-material betrays Handy’s institution based musical education. Indeed, it aligns him with the views of Heinrich Schenker, a theorist and musicologist widely popular in Handy’s era. Schenker argued for Western-classical music’s polyphonic crescendo as the pinnacle of musical evolution far beyond the “primeval music of the negroes” [8].


The title attributed to Handy is, then, overstated. He might better be seen as the “collator of the blues,” popularizing the form for a new market and introducing it to a new cultural group. While Handy did not create the form, he did father the body central to its thematic ‒ the critical history of the blues beginning with the appearance of his uncredited muse. A spectral stranger came to him dressed in rags, showing the “sadness of the ages,” in a burlesque dreamscape – a sound rousing Handy from his sleep at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, with a voice from another world making “life suddenly [take him] by the shoulder” and awaken him (74). This is the beginning of the archetypal ‘bluesman’ and the persistent mythos of unlearned anonymity. Moreover, the body attached to Handy’s stranger is unmistakably Black.


At the risk of sounding platitudinous, the link between race and the blues is undeniable – the sense of it being ‘Black music’ is a point with much gravitas, difficult to dispute while simultaneously hard to fully delineate. The borrowing of this ‘Black music’ has meant a polarizing miscegenation of the Black culture attached to its foundational myth, a ‘ventriloquizing’ by others brought on by both longing and disdain (Hamilton 48), and a fraught relationship of give and take – but mostly of take. Eric Lott’s book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1995) shows how the historical appropriation of Black culture is used to applaud and jeer in equal measure. While there is an element of contempt in the heinously racist costumes and makeups of minstrelsy, the performances held an appeal far beyond parody. Shows were lucrative because people wanted to hear the music, but they desired a specific body to perform it.


The burnt-cork makeup of the “charcoal gypsy maidens” was an attempt at authenticity ‒ a misguided attempt ‒ but one deemed necessary by crowd and performer alike. In his exploration of the cultural politics of obligation, academic Nick Heffernan[9] compares two distinct views on this ‘borrowing’ of culture, juxtaposing the brevity of Frederick Douglass’s opinion that performers of blackface were “filthy scum” who robbed Blacks by selling the fruits of their culture to other whites, with W.E.B. Dubois’s view in The Souls of Black Folk that Black music is “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” [10] The “gift,” as Dubois explains it, proved irresistible to appropriators, and while the minstrel shows lacked an authenticity of race, Dubois considered a Black body in the performance to be only a secondary concern if broad popularization helped to further equality for that body outside the form.


The reality of the ‘art’ of the minstrel shows is situated somewhere between these two views – the “bootlegged whiskey” where Dylan’s work dwells. It is near impossible to sing the blues, even as brilliantly as Dylan does, without flirting with the appropriation of another cultural marker and another body; it is also hard to sing about that body without profuse abstraction of the simplistic blues myth of primality and anonymity. In the world of artistic borrowing (or appropriation), the zeitgeist may be at ease with Mick Jagger stealing the dance moves of Little Richard – and the lyrical intonations of Muddy Waters – but there is no avoiding an eventual sense of fraudulent taboo in such ‘post-minstrelsy’. It is unlikely that the same breadth of artistic license would be allowed if The Rolling Stones decided to play “Ain’t It Hard to be a Right Black N*****,” a standard that Allan Lomax suggests Willie McTell sing as a “complaining song” in his recordings for the Library of Congress. Mick Jagger does not literally embody the target of that word’s cruel and racist vitriol, so he could not justifiably invoke it to weave a song narrative, regardless of such motivating factors as homage or adoration.


The issue of race is a social and political one, but it is also linguistic: adjectives as predicates ‒ “one place predicate” vs. “two-place relations” as Sagoff[11] puts it (169) ‒ simplify linguistically that which is more complex as a lived experience. To say that white artists sing the blues as powerfully, or feel as Black artists do, is not a justification. The blues acts as an aesthetic predicate, in the form of a broader attributive (Black music). To be blue, to sing of the blues, to use blue chords are all things that can be done outside of the blues, but if the tradition requires an internal and fundamental appreciation of being Black in America to be authentic, then the ability to ‘sing the blues’ authentically is not universal. Andrew McCarron states it succinctly in Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan[12]: “[T]he cultural traditions of African Americans were and are the most influential and consistent sources behind Dylan’s musical creations.” (180) But singing about the blues that influenced you is not necessarily singing the blues as it is ‘authentically’ understood.


Such racial polarity makes the issue an autobiographical one, something fraught in an everyday sense, but heightened in modern academia, even with a largely fictionalized persona like ‘Bob Dylan’ that fits neatly with Barthes’ and continental post-philosophy’s decommissioning of authorial sovereignty. Like the minstrel ‘tent shows’, it is again a specific ‘body’ that critics want in blues mythology, a certain biographical and physical body – not the body that left this song abandoned on the floor of The Power Station recording studio. In “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan inverts these conceptions: the white body of ‘Bob Dylan’ is absent and mythologized, while the mythological Black body of the blues singer is replaced by the biographical reality of a specific, lower-middle-class, educated and industrious man named McTell. The speaker who speaks, singing the song’s narration, is an anonymous persona, “an American who could speak for everyone; [who] did not belong to any one state, locale or ethnicity; [who] had lived with all manner of Americans and sung with an authentic American voice.” The song is at no point narrated by Robert Zimmerman-cum-Bob Dylan, by white or Black, but by multiple renderings of a democratic-American poet, an ideal “outside of time and space” [13] and outside of embodiment.


This is critical to a truthful homage of both a Black bluesman, and to singing the blues: a non-literate (not to be confused with non-literary) art form. Houston A. Baker[14] posits that expressive artistic genres: “blues, jazz, work songs, and verbal forms such as folk tales” comprise a collective that represents identity. In the case of African Americans, that identity is a ‘sensualization’ of the suffering and societal degradation inherent with Blackness, making embodiment a marker of authenticity. Dylan’s tribute assumes a form that a broader body can empathize with, but ‘no one’ body can fully understand. It is a persona that is necessary until such a time as an “egalitarian ideal has been achieved in American life and art” that will move the blues into the realm of “self-conscious art” (Baker 4), rather than being renowned for otherness. Outside of such egalitarianism, Dylan must leave subjective opinion to a narratorial personification: to an unidentified, bodily other.


The Times They Are a-Changin’

Artistic authenticity is attached to identities that can be malleable (fictive or factual) but are ultimately biographical in nature and centered on an individual or group. Take, for example, a critical investigation into the newly discovered work of a great painter. Comparing the stylings, brush strokes, or themes of the work is not just a matter of aesthetics; it is about authenticity. Unknowingly viewing a good forgery of Nicolas Poussin’s Les Bergers d’Arcadie stirs the same aesthetic reaction as his original ‒ conjuring the inescapability and imminence of death – but that does not make it comparable to the work of Poussin. Rather, the learned depths of an art expert’s examination of style seeks to authenticate that a work is by the artist’s own hand. This perspective on authenticity seems flawed because it conflates legitimacy with propriety, where the ‘who’ of the originator is more important than the ‘what’ of their affect, but it is ultimately underwritten by the invaluable nature of originality.


The ‘brush strokes’ of authenticity in songs are somewhat different. “[T]he literature of musical aesthetics [focuses] largely on the relationship of performances and ‘the work’ – or, because the work is conceived of as a composition, between performances and what the composer intended.” (Rudinow 129) So, the ‘work’ as Rudinow explains it, is an ambition by the artist to transfer their artistic vision from ether to artefact, traditionally via notation and contemporarily as a recording. Theodor W. Adorno ponders such original exemplars in Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (2006)[15] saying that the “dignity of the musical text lies in its non-intentionality,” something that is highlighted when comparing live performances of “Blind Willie McTell” with the power of the Infidels bootleg. Adorno continues by saying that unlike visual art (that which “is”), or verbal text (that which “signifies”), music is a “third element […] derived as a memorial trace of the ephemeral sound, not as a fixing of its lasting meaning.” (4) The bootleg of BWM is the definition of ephemerality, representative of a lost burst of time motivated and moved by unknown catalysts that lead to authentic originality. But Dylan has spent the better part of the last thirty years reimagining his ‘authentic’ works with often unrecognizable renditions. Live performances of “Blind Willie McTell” are no exception. While others have done their best to recreate the original bootleg, works of a Bob Dylan cover-band (or even The Band) lack the biographical traits needed to be considered authentic. “Nobody can sing…” a version of “Blind Willie McTell” ‒ no matter how well crafted ‒ as authentically as Bob Dylan. But, simultaneously, Bob Dylan might never do another version of “Blind Willie McTell” that is as ephemeral as his original recordings.


The additional layering in this idea of musical authenticity takes on a deeper meaning in a racial sense. Still largely biographical in nature, the consideration of exemplar recordings imbued with elements of Adorno’s “memorial trace” makes the work of deciphering authenticity still more fraught. The idea of the blues as a ‘Black music’ requiring a Black body to perform it meets with some well researched critical resistance: but rarely progresses beyond classifying exclusivity as a form of cultural parsimony, reverse-racism, or “ethnocentrism.”[16] Categorizing the musical reworkings of white performers (based on recordings of Black bluesmen) as biographically inauthentic is not unfair; any suggestion that it is plays more into the denotative definitional reality of idioms like ‘reverse-racism’ than it does critical gusto. A Black man from the Mississippi delta could never contribute to the works of the Dutch Golden Age. No matter how vivid his baroque-styled renderings, he would simply lack the appropriate biographical palmarés to be considered viable in the field. So why is the blues less culturally sacrosanct?


Casting aside the necessity of Blackness in the blues without considering its impact on biographical authenticity is entirely unfair – a creole of convenience for those who may be considered inauthentic. “Blind Willie McTell” is built on the reality that racial categorization is not just based on social preconceptions, but that it has a foundation in government-regulated institutional exploitation, imprisonment, and social disenfranchisement (‘hear the ghosts of slavery ships’). To discard racial propriety stymies the impact of such a history and foregoes the biographical component of authenticity. “Blind Willie McTell” exposes the listener’s own inherent part in a racial hegemony where whites (male) in America have been excluded from nothing politically, socially or economically, whilst Blacks have been excluded from all these spheres. The idea of an ‘exclusive’ Black music is disruptive of such a power structure, hence the oft-unapologetic stylistic appropriation. Unlike Poussin’s painting, where biographical authenticity is a marker of value, the blues has largely done away with the importance of ‘who’ and replaced it with myth. This has meant that the ‘forgeries’ are heralded as legitimate for their aesthetic appeal, while the Black hand of the original artist has been conveniently forgotten.


The narrative confusion and inherent vagueness in “Blind Willie McTell” highlights the historical role of race in the blues. It exposes a biased historical sense in the reader/listener that exemplifies how a biography of Blackness permeates the song’s lyrics and the broader musical form. The narrator’(s) tense(s) mean that the place in time is confused by the very structure of the song; the lack of immediacy means that the ontological conceptions forego any kind of Derridean “empirical absolutism.”[17] The manufactured vistas are traces of what they represent. By moving from memory to immediacy, from “Seen the arrow,” “traveled through,” “heard that hoot owl singing” (past tense); to “See them big plantations burning,” “There’s a chain gang on the highway” and “I’m gazing out the window / Of the St. James Hotel” (present tense) an uncertainty is created. To listen to the song is to be confronted with empirical immediacy that is not reflected in the syntactical reality.


“I” does not experience any of the direct sensual cues in the song, except for hearing the spectral moans of memory represented by the “tribes” ‒ another time-slippage. As such, “I” does not participate in any kind of empirical understanding: “I” gazes from a window and travels through East Texas, but the listener is the only part of the narrative with immediacy at (correspondingly) the most harrowing textual, and the most intense sensual moments:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell


The listener is unlikely to have first-hand experience of these specific sensory perceptions, but as experiential metaphors they allow the reader to utilize their own embodied experiences to make a confused scene seem cogent and visceral. By seeing, hearing, and smelling three scenes that are highly palpable (the brightness of a flame, the smell of a pungent flower, and the flinch-invoking sound of a whip-crack!) the writing creates a rhythm of neural cognizance, invoking a crescendo of coherent sensory reality in the reader’s mind – a sense of what the scene portrays.


Writing about the neural theory of metaphor, Simon Zagorski Thomas[18] argues that “every act of interpretation of perceptual stimulus involves the creation of relationships between our previous bodily experience and the activity we are witnessing.” (274) Music thus depends on feeling, which is why sense and emotion are the primary linguistic tools for describing it: songs are sad, or blue, they have downbeat or upbeat tempos. Zagorski-Thomas considers this perception via embodied behavior as the cognitive foundation for intertext, for understanding things through association rather than experience. This means that aural emotiveness shifts from the realm of an individual listener’s actual lived experience (the one) to a broader understanding of the human experience; from a solitary gaze to an immersive, shared sensual-understanding (the body).


Post-modern ethnography holds that “understanding” must be achieved through interaction rather than observation: that only through eliminating the “eye” can one eliminate the concept of subject (noun) as subject (verb): the imperial “I.”[19] Dylan does not endorse or denounce a racialized conception of the blues; instead he exposes listeners (through sense) to their own inherent sense of that racial undertone. As they sit among the moaning tribes, it is not the Israelites they picture (even with a Jewish voice singing), it is a certain body of people that can flatten history, bring past to present, move now to then – no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.


Historical and temporal plasticity conjured by Blackness is rightly hard to grasp, let alone philosophize. There is no “aha!” moment in the subtle analepsis of Dylan’s shifting of space-time. Rather it seems like an aural act of what Endel Tulving calls “chronesthesia,”[20] temporal time travel through a subjective mind, a memory trace that invokes the vista created and populated by the narrator and the listener. From an intermedia perspective this falls in line with Gerard Genette and Raphael Baroni’s “undramatized analepsis,” or “fading effects”[21] used in films and graphic novels to destabilize narrative time and create a mimetic shift for the watcher or reader. It connotes “a progressive immersion into the storyworld” where the narrative structure divides between telling and showing, allowing events to narrate their own timeline. (321) This rationalizes the complexity of the time, place and subject of Dylan’s work. It transforms the listener from a passive witness, to a silent observer, a participant in the unfolding horror – something Nietzsche[22] called the reader’s “historical sense.” A knowledge of history inside an individual, the “I remember” that inevitably distracts any subjectivity with the “chains” of the past. (7)


The dialectical and conversational astuteness that Baroni focuses on is the same process that allows a reader to understand what is meant when James Baldwin[23] writes “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times” (13). In “Blind Willie McTell” that recognition deciphers a triangular conversation between narrator (a), narrator (b), and the listener themselves, where the mind-reading required to assume we are not reading a torn-up letter in Baldwin’s work is the same that paints “Blind Willie McTell”’s vista ‒ the mind of the conversation’s silent party. The imagination of the listener/reader that drives such an understanding is shaped by the social construct that surrounds and permeates them ‒ what Aldon Morris[24] refers to as “systems of human domination” are uncovered in this song, where one group controls another group through “ideological hegemonies” enforced by pervasive societal narratives (20). bell hooks’s notion of “decolonization” posits that confronting that social hegemony (“linguistic, discursive, or ideological”) begins with the recognition of its very existence (15): “there [is] a chain gang on the highway’, not ‘there was…”


Language creates the narrative of inferiority, or otherness, shaping perceptions that fortify all forms of mass oppression. By setting a vague scene and allowing the mind of the listener to illustrate the vista, “Blind Willie McTell” exposes the narrative associations that inhere in the song through the listener, populating the “ghosts of slavery ships” and showing how literal emancipation is illusory unless the narrative of Blackness is changed ‒ what might be termed a “literary emancipation.” The song would not be the same if the chorus was “I know no one can sing the blues like Cisco Houston”, “Woody Guthrie,” or “Bob Dylan.” Telling unique and personal stories (singing songs) is the first step to any kind of broader, less sanctimonious freedom. Here, however, that premise is inverted, the song revealing the shackles of a historically distant but temporally near cultural association.


Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

Inversion has a great deal more exactness to it than misdirection, with the definitional difference being the binary required to ‘invert’ two distinct points, things, or views. The structure and subject matter Dylan invokes in “Blind Willie McTell” can serve as a tool to abstract the fragility of the blues’ racial mythology, and to invert the inherent otherness of that myth’s Black-body. The song’s narrative style brings into question the absoluteness of geographic certainties like direction and location to expose how a readerly subjectivity guides all understanding. East and west become metaphoric literary tools that can deftly narrow the divide between fiction and fact, revealing the adjudicating necessity of the eye (or ear) of the beholder.


This thematic begins immediately with the confusion of the song’s ordering: the narrative’s poetic starting point and syntactical beginning are disparate; the lyrical content and verse structure both misdirect. The song begins (structurally) at an arrow-laden doorpost, a portal into another place marked by a sign that is semiotically non specific (what the arrow points to) and semantically obtuse: “This land is condemned” (what land?) In linear time, this opening tableau has passed; it is too late to stave off the condemnation. “Seen the arrow” subtly indicates analepsis, the immediate inexactness of reminiscence and the historical sense of the wronging. There is a temptation to excuse “seen” as a stylistic attempt at ‘blues authenticity’, but that notion is tempered by the lack of elisions and contractions in “Blind Willie McTell”’s broader grammatic parsing. Moreover, the poetic neatness with which “Seen the arrow on the doorpost” juxtaposes the final verse’s immediacy: “I’m gazing out the window.” These two scenes create narrative space inside a physical space, highlighting two polarities simultaneously: inside/outside and then/now.


The perceived physicality of “Blind Willie McTell” does not hinder or confine the expansive traveling of the narrator(s). They find their way through portals in the physical space via doors and windows. Nor does it confine the listener who traverses these physical gaps as thresholds of “narrative magic” [25] mapping an auditory journey through the space-time of the song’s trochaic footfalls. The story is a recollection of escaping a conception through a portal, where the analepsis of “seen” is a prolepsis in structural-narrative time. Contrarily, if the journey ends at the window (as it does structurally) then approaching from the doorpost means moving through a building or house, a metaphoric home that the story unfolds through. Dylan may be invoking the biblical ideas of freedom and bondage in Lincoln’s ‘house divided’ ‒ the metaphoric, ever-teetering, house of America. The listener finds themselves in limbo in the space of the story, Adorno’s “Randgebaiten,” or Phillip Tagg’s “borderlands,”[26] where absolutes prove hard to neatly categorize (297). Somewhere between New Orleans and Jerusalem, the hoodoo and the holy; somewhere between Black and white, freedom and bondage; an American-grotesque story-world blurring the authentic and the ersatz.


Misdirection and inversion continue in the song’s physical mapping. Traveling from New Orleans to Jerusalem, one does not encounter East Texas without taking a rather long way ‘round, but that is where the listener is guided. Michael Gray[27] links “East Texas” to a cowboy lament in ballad form called “The Streets of Laredo.” The version he cites (requiring a deep knowledge of Allan Lomax’s vast folk catalog) is lyrically unique, because the narrator directly mentions that he is from south-east Texas. (55) A more celebrated version of ‘Laredo,’ on More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1960) by Marty Robbins, is relevant to Gray’s broader theory both for its popularity and its invocation of Robbins’ (earlier and more succinct) album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959), where the story-world of “Laredo” hosts the composition, “El Paso.”


Named for a town to the west of Laredo, “El Paso” is similarly linked to the idea of ‘borderlands’ in American story (and geographical fact). The stylings and sounds of “El Paso” render so completely and succinctly the mythos of the American West that it is almost an auditory mural. This anthemic character is an important parallel to the opening lines: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso,” and its motivating story of a young cowboy struck down by love, jealousy, and vice; another of the many martyrs in a ballad tradition known as “The Unfortunate Rake.” Because Dylan knows Robbins’ “El Paso” (he performs an instrumental cover of it live at Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1989) and has previously journeyed to the geographic area of El Paso in song: “I’m going down to West Texas/ Behind the Louisiana line,” [28] there is potential for the juxtaposition of direction in “Blind Willie McTell” to be seen as a tribute to the American plurality and polarity of “El Paso” and the cowboy ballads that inspired it (mirroring its multiracial/multicultural heritage). Concurrently “Laredo” invokes “Blind Willie McTell”’s intertextual connection to the “Rake” cycle through the blues standard “St. James Infirmary Blues” which itself alludes to Blind Willie McTell’s own “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.” This source confusion presents the blues as a form that emerged organically through musical pastiche, one engineered by troubadours exceptionally well-versed in oral tradition and history, rather than a form that materialized spontaneously at a Mississippi train station.


In “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan overturns conceptions of reality by interrogating (and shattering) polarity, presenting an elegant collision point where myth and fact synthesize – with internal subjectivity separating one from the other ‒ showing us a final ‘borderland’. William James[29] succinctly assessed the necessity of personality in the process of liberating validity and ideas from the “floating” thoughts of story, saying “the only states of consciousness that we naturally deal with are found in personal consciousnesses, minds, selves, concrete particular I’s and you’s.” (226) But between these two things (the east of internalized consciousness and the west of what floats outside) is another ‘borderland’ that changes subjectivity from one group to another, dividing textual ideas of superiority and subjugation where the subjective body meets the outside world. This inside/outside binary is segregated by something that must be overcome by the listener – the border between world and body that shifts internal perspective because of external politics: the skin.


Nicola Diamond[30] summarizes the partitional, frontier quality of skin in her psychoanalytical work, calling it “an exteriorized surface in intimate relation with others (and with the wider social environment) and to the ‘interior’ of the body, which is also profoundly affected by social interaction and environmental relations.” (4) Walter Benjamin[31] theorized the importance of “taking from experience” to give the audience a place to inhabit. What Dylan does in “Blind Willie McTell” is create a space where the raced nature of the song becomes as illusory as the song’s other ‘facts’. In storytelling there are always traces of the real that lead to acceptance of any premise, like the novelist (the focus of Benjamin’s assertion), the poet or musician must thread together their texts from all manner of other sources or experiences (whether stories or real-life) to heighten their ability to show the “profound perplexity of the living.” (87) “Blind Willie McTell” does this by presenting a hollow body whose journey is animated by the historically-shaped, ambient world of the listener.


Go away from my window

The structure and musical styling of “Blind Willie McTell” provides the listener with a space to pour themselves into. The rhetorical circularity and thematic ambiguity align the song’s thematic with the ‘window’ through which the final narrator is gazing. What one really sees through a window is a vista overlaid by the slightest shadow: a reflection of the observer. This optical confusion goes unnoticed unless the eye’s focus is drawn to the immediate rather than the distant. “Blind Willie McTell” flattens history, showing that past and present are concomitant in the window overlaying the song-world.


Dylan’s storytelling can easily be sullied by preoccupations with legitimacy, authenticity, propriety, and ‘truth’. What Dylan is dealing with in “Blind Willie McTell” are traces – not truths. There are no absolutes in the song, only narrative building blocks ready to be made coherent by an audience and a mind. Hard facts like direction, and ingrained mythologies like racial polarity are simultaneously inverted so that in questioning the ‘truths’ populating the song’s narrative, the listener is exposed to the ‘truths’ they bring from their ambient worlds. It is the listener’s interpretation that exposes how real-world assumptions become elements of a wider narrative whole. They guide the interpretation of the spoken-word performance. “Nobody” or “no body” is for the listener to decide. Through the repetitive naming of Blind Willie McTell, the song upends the blues myth of anonymity semantically, while inverting it metaphorically, creating a hollow body for the listener to inhabit: an avatar through which to ventriloquize, feel and authentically understand the complexity of the blues.


[1] Baraka, I. A. Black Music. Akashik Books, 2010.

[2] ‘The Genius and Modern Times of Bob Dylan’ RS (2006)

[3] Oatley, K. “A Taxonomy of the Emotions of Literary Response and a Theory of Identification in Fictional Narrative.” POETICS -THE HAGUE. vol.1, no.2, 1995, pp. 53-74.

[4] hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Routledge, 2015.

[5] Goffman, E. “On Fieldwork”, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol.18, no.2, 1989, pp.123–132.

[6] Rudinow, J. ‘Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol.52 no.1,1994, pp. 127-139.

[7] Hamilton, M. In Search Of The Blues: Black Voices, White Visions. Random House, 2007.

[8] Handy, W.C. Father Of The Blues: An Autobiography. DaCapo Press. 1991.

[9] Heffernan, N. ‘“As Usual, I’ll Have to Take an IOU”: W. E. B. Du Bois, the Gift of Black Music and the Cultural Politics of Obligation’, Journal of American Studies, vol.4, 2018, pp. 1095-1121.

[10] Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Benediction Classics, 2017.

[11] Sagoff, M. ‘The Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol.35 num.2, 1976, pp. 169-181.

[12] McCarron, A. Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan. Oxford Univesrity Press, 2017.

[13] Sutton, M. ‘“Roadmaps for the Soul” History and Cartography in Bob Dylan’s Early Songs’, Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol.28, num.1, 2009, pp. 17-33.

[14] Baker Jr, H.A. ‘Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of Afro-American Literature’, Black American Literature Forum, vol.15, num.1, 1981, pp. 3

[15] Adorno, T.W. Towards a Theory of Musical Production. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2006.

[16] Tagg, P. ‘Open Letter: ’Black Music’, “Afro-American Music” and “European Music”’, Popular Music, vol.8, num.3, 1989, pp. 285-298.

[17] Derrida, J. Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

[18] Zagorski-Thomas, S. ‘Timbre as Text: The Cognitive Roots of Intertextuality’ The Pop Palimpsest, University of Michigan Press, 2018, pp. 273-290.

[19] Conquergood, D. ‘Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics’, Communication Monographs, vol.58, num.2, 1991, pp. 179-195.

[20] Tulving, E. “Chronesthesia: Conscious Awareness of Subjective Time” Principles of Frontal Lobe Function, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 311-325.

[21] Baroni, R. ‘Dramatized Analepsis and Fadings in Verbal Narratives’, Narrative, vol.24, num.3, 2016, pp. 311–329.

[22] Nietzsche, F. The Use and Abuse of History, Cosimo, 2005.

[23] Baldwin, J. The Fire Next Time. Penguin, 1990.

[24] Morris, Aldon D. The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. University of California Press, 2015.

[25] Johnson, A. ‘“The doors would be taken off their hinges”: Space, Place and Architectural Absence in Virginia Woolf’, English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, vol.97, num.4, 2016, pp. 412–419.

[26] Tagg, P. ‘Open Letter: ’Black Music’, “Afro-American Music” and “European Music”’, Popular Music, vol.8, num.3, 1989, pp. 285-298

[27] Gray, M. Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Continuum International, 2006.

[28] Dylan, B. ‘Live At The Gaslight 1962’ 2005 Sony BMG

[29] James, W. The Principals of Psychology. New York, Cosimo, 2007.

[30] Diamond, N. Between Skins: The Body in Psychoanalysis – Contemporary Developments, John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

[31] Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken, 1969, pp. 83-109.

Bob Dylan’s date with The Faerie Queene (1596)
BY Harriet Archer, University of St Andrews



While comparisons between Bob Dylan and Shakespeare are commonplace, and Dylan’s lyrics have been profitably read alongside Petrarch, Rimbaud, and others in recent work, this article advances the first sustained analysis of potential Spenserian echoes in Dylan’s oeuvre. Rereading Dylan and Jacques Levy’s southwestern quest ballad “Isis” (Desire, 1976) alongside the “Isis Church” episode in The Faerie Queene (1596), it argues that attention to the song’s resonances with Edmund Spenser’s reworking of the Egyptian Isis Osiris myth sheds light on how both texts engage and subvert the romance mode to theorize historical mimesis and allusion. The texts are understood as parallel articulations of their authors’ analogous archaeological poetics, which foreground their shared responses to intertextuality and colonial encounter.


The poet lives in a daydream that is awake, but above all, his daydream remains in the world, facing worldly things. It gathers the universe together around and in an object. We see it open chests, or condense cosmic wealth in a slender casket. If there are jewels and precious stones in the casket, it is the past, a long past, a past that goes back through generations, that will set the poet romancing … Here the past, the present and a future are condensed. Thus the casket is memory of what is immemorial.

– Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.[1]

Come here you, Set said in his John Wayne voice.

– Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo.[2]



The liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Desire (released January 5, 1976) pose a question, “Where do I begin,” and offer the beginnings of an answer: “on the heels of Rimbaud.”[3] The record is set up as a metaliterary pursuit, from Dylan’s “bathtub in Maine” to “the historical parking lot in sunburned California;” “from Brooklyn to Guam, from Lowell to Durango.” The liner notes assert that “Romance is taking over,” and its songs are readily characterized as preoccupied with romance of various kinds, from “themes of passion, seduction, and, well, Desire” to “the literary form of romance – stories of quests into enchanted worlds and battles against unknowable enemies.”[4] It is striking, however, that critical engagements with the album have not so far explored this characterization in relation to specific manifestations of the form, whether classical, medieval, or modern, and instead maintain a general acceptance that its evocation of travel, mysticism and love has to do only in a loose way with literary romance conventions.


For Timothy Hampton, Desire’s romance rings hollow: Dylan and his collaborator Jacques Levy offer “a set of exotic adventures,” but their quest narratives collapse under the imposition of phony enchantment, “which wants to conjure up magic but constantly calls attention to its own conjuring.”[5] Hampton persuasively suggests that “These songs are caught between, on the one hand, a vision in which all cultural memory … is already a media creation and, on the other hand, a set of tales which longs to deny that fact.”6 However, he goes on to argue that “the album shows the limits of a cultural production that is merely spatial (geography, ethnography) without being truly historical.”[7] This essay contends instead that it is Desire’s engagements with romance as a mode – with the mode’s interests in geography and ethnography – which allow it to comment on what it is to experience and constitute history. Specifically, Desire’s second track, “Isis,” coauthored by Dylan and Levy, is reconsidered in relation to Edmund Spenser’s engagement with that Egyptian goddess in Book 5 Canto 7 of his Elizabethan romance-epic in verse, The Faerie Queene (1596), a poem which, to borrow Gordon Teskey’s assessment, “does not set the past at a theatrical distance but entangles past and present in the signifying procedures of allegory and in the randomizing patterns of narrative romance,” such that romance is used “actually to think about history.”8 In a 1991 interview with Paul Zollo for SongTalk, Dylan describes “Isis” as,

a story that … just seemed to take on a life of its own [laughs], as another view of history [laughs]. Which there are so many views that don’t get told. Of history, anyway. That wasn’t one of them. Ancient history but history nonetheless … it seemed like just about any way it wanted to go would have been okay, just as long as it didn’t get too close.[9]


With Dylan’s play on the layered connotations of “ancient history” in mind, I understand the record as offering a spectrum of mimetic degrees, from the anti textual “One More Cup of Coffee,” fictive “Romance in Durango,” irreverently misdirected “Mozambique,” and oblique “Oh Sister,” to the postmodern “Black Diamond Bay,” revisionist “Hurricane” and “Joey,” and baldly autobiographical “Sara.” These juxtaposed shades of retelling unpick the sociological demands visited on the poet-prophet persona that, by the mid-1970s, Dylan was hard at work to shrug off. But for Desire, romance is not a means of sidestepping the responsibilities of the chronicler, of retreating into digression and dissipation, but of engaging a series of contrasting narrative modes which by turns document and occlude its preoccupations. In this sense, the album anticipates Scott Black’s account of romance as “formed of the seams of time, of temporal knots, loops, or vortices that register and provoke an experience of transhistorical reading,” while foregrounding each song’s distinct approach to historicity.[10]


Where Dylan’s “absolutely modern” electric period was influenced by Rimbaud and Baudelaire’s visionary poetics, and Blood on the Tracks (1975) moves backwards from Rimbaud to Petrarch to repudiate the visionary in favor of love lyric, for Hampton, Desire returns to Rimbaud “not as the rebel poet of the senses … but as adventurer.”[11] The album presents a collage of itinerant, transnational, and transtemporal vignettes, inflected as Hampton notes with ironic disenchantment and an awareness of formal limitation. By contrast with Hampton’s interpretation, though, this essay reads Desire’s play with themes of containment and limitation as a productive reflection on its cognate concerns: genre and adaptation. It suggests that Dylan and Levy’s hallucinatory imaginary finds kinship, in the turn to “short novel[s] in verse,” with Spenser’s own ironic early modern adaptations of medieval and classical romance, and posits a valuable discursive relationship between Dylan and Spenser as artists who both theorize mythopoeic nation-forming and both inaugurated new ages of lyric possibility in their respective cultures.[12] Like T. S. Eliot’s Joyce in “‘Ulysses,’ Order, and Myth,” both “manipulat[e] a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” by adopting what Eliot, in relation to Joyce’s 1922 adaptation of the Odyssey, dubs “the mythical method.”[13] But, rather than following twentieth century Black artists’ subsequent, comparable treatment of the Isis-Osiris myth, in novels such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) which align the legend with Black musical culture, Dylan and Levy’s romance ballad engages with this method on markedly Spenserian terrain.


Dylan and Levy’s “Isis,” and Spenser’s account of his questing knight Britomart’s experiences at “Isis Church,” marry romance’s traffic with displacement, dislocation and untimeliness to explicit scenes of excavation and ethnographic encounter in order to reflect on the intersection of space and place, history and storytelling.[14] These parallel reiterations of the myth, which at once critique and revel in romance tropes, speak to an affinity of structural imagination, rearticulating the received narrative through a punning lexicon of spatial and social relationships. Archetypal relational structures – journey, gender, revelation, and resurrection – are picked up and remade in starkly architectural environmental terms, to make sense of the narrative through position, direction, aspect and containment.[15] In both adaptations of the Isis myth, a hero’s journey through a perilous, imaginary landscape combines focused searching with digressive wandering, and a series of mercurial encounters which pose risk and challenge, and ultimately lead to self-knowledge, providential victory and prodigal return – so far, so faithful to the trope of the romance quest anatomized by theorists like Vladimir Propp, Northrop Frye or, in oppositional vein, Frederic Jameson.[16] Indeed, both Britomart’s quest for her prophesied husband Artegall, and the heroic adventures which populate Desire have been read in terms of archetypes. For Janet Gezari, “Isis” “is about occupying opposing positions or seeking opposite objectives.”[17] Likewise Aidan Day, in the most sustained analysis of the song to date, suggests that as

An image of the union of lover with loved one, of masculine with feminine, of self with soul, it is an image of the suspension of difference between outer and inner, between object and subject. An image of the redemption of self-alienation, it is an image of the assimilation of impurity and incompleteness to ideal form, of complex to archetype.[18]


Looking back on his earlier creative practice, Dylan himself invokes the value of archetypes in his account of anglophone folk music in the provocatively-titled quasi-autobiography Chronicles, Volume One, recalling that “I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity.”[19]


Readings of Dylan and Levy’s “Isis” which have prioritized its symbolism have often done so as part of the late twentieth century scholarly project to ratify Dylan’s status as legitimate literary voice, of which there is now no serious doubt. By writing “Isis” back into the realm of the mythic and archetypal, though, such readings have neglected the song’s own adaptation of the original myth in dialogue with the genre of the western, and its lineage in John Lomax’s collected Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (first published 1910), as well as its contribution to Desire’s prismatic vision of historical mimesis. In Allen Ginsberg’s liner essay “Songs of Redemption,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” tellingly, is identified as “sort of an archetypal song,” whereas Ginsberg notes of “Isis” and “Hurricane,” “I’m in sympathy with them in historical terms.”[20] Closer to the mark, then, is Denning’s observation that “Dylan’s road film [Renaldo and Clara] ended up half roman à clef … and half archetypal fiction,” an assessment echoed in Black’s account of romance itself as “an irresolvably double genre” mediating between fiction and empiricism.[21] “Isis” both embodies this antithesis and contributes to its expression on Desire at large. Spenser’s “Isis Church” episode has been shown to operate in much the same way as part of Book 5’s allegory of Justice, containing both its own topical resonance and a critique of the book’s ostensibly transparent mythic historiography, through its deconstructive reworking of the Isis myth rather than its own aspiration to the mythic.[22] Just as the emphasis on archetypes has been surpassed in Spenser studies, Dylan and Levy’s “Isis” also repays the kind of critical attention which allows Spenser’s dealings with romance to be understood as making specific arguments about the writing of history through their sidelong interrogation of romance conventions, rather than as a pure iteration of the form.[23]


Symbols are key to both works’ approaches to adaptation, but not always as they have been critically apprehended. Hampton dismisses Ginsberg’s “O Generation keep on working!” in Desire’s liner notes as a “nostalgic call to arms:” “Ginsberg was a bit out of touch or behind the times” since, by now, “Dylan had already bundled up the 1960s generation and moved on.”[24] By refocusing understanding of “Isis” through the lens of an early modern engagement with the ancient Egyptian myth, however, it is possible to read the resonance of the symbol not as a retrogressive appeal to Dylan’s late-1960s Symbolist imaginary, but of a piece with “a new age, a new Dylan again redeemed … it’s the real Seventies.”[25] In 1975, Beat poet Diane di Prima added a preface to J. W. Hamilton Jones’s translation of John Dee’s Elizabethan Monas Hieroglyphica, which drew attention to the text’s pictographic “thinking in symbols.” Like Ginsberg, di Prima used this prefatory platform to mount a rallying cry to her contemporaries, demanding that, “We must seek once again to read the direction of the Invisible in its material forms, so as to rescue and redeem the Earth”; “hopefully,” through a process which di Prima calls “creative memory,” “the full meaning of this work will re-surface for us.”[26] Both the “Isis Church” episode and “Isis” use the tropological landscape of romance to enable acts of “creative memory,” sewing their symbols into a visionary narrative which foregrounds the place of mystical interpretation in the reconstruction of the self, through their oblique relationships to their mythic basis.


Whether or not we conclude that Spenser’s poem, the emphasis on early modern mysticism in its mid-century critical reception, or his works’ unexpected traces amongst the American avant-garde, became a part of Dylan and Levy’s esoteric cultural raw material, reading them side by side illuminates the works’ comparable treatment of their shared sources.[27] Judith H. Anderson proposed that Spenser derives from Chaucer his ability “to imbibe” a source’s “spirit without being stagnated by its letter,” and Britomart’s dreamed encounter with the goddess Isis in Book 5 of The Faerie Queene offers a particularly compelling example of this tendency.[28] Dylan and Levy’s “Isis” bears reinterpretation along similar lines.[29] Dylan’s art has been shown to “succeed in looking, Janus-faced, towards a very wide audience on the one hand, while simultaneously inviting a more recherché, specifically literary gaze on the other,” and in recent years, scholars have read Dylan’s lyrics in relation to canonical antecedents including John Milton, Edgar Allen Poe, Joseph Conrad, Jack Kerouac, Petrarch, Rimbaud, and Wallace Stevens; studies of allusions to Walt Whitman and Shakespeare, as well as self-reflexive references to Dylan’s own oeuvre, in Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), are surely forthcoming.[30] So it is remarkable that Spenser has not featured in such “source studies,” given the strong Spenserian echoes across Dylan’s lyrics. Most explicitly, the eponymous, but forever absent, heroine of Spenser’s Elizabethan romance-epic potentially coexists alongside the more readily inferred Shakespearean referents on Tempest (2012).[31] “It’s soon after midnight,” Dylan sings, “and I got a date with the fairy queen” (916). Dylan’s lyrics are peppered with queens: Mary, Anne, and Jane, gypsy queens, and the card-deck queens of the gambler and the fortune teller, who perhaps make up “All the old queens from all my past lives” in “I Contain Multitudes.”[32] The “fairy queen” of “Soon After Midnight” might be Shakespeare’s Titania or the fairy Queen Mab, but possibly also Spenser’s Gloriana, a colloquial homosexual allusion, or even the poem itself. The song begins in Petrarchan fashion, evoking, too, the Elizabethan sonnet sequences of Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare, whose interest in their female subject is so often secondary to metatextual reflections on their own production: “I’m searching for phrases / To sing your praises” (916).[33] They also, however, recall the opening stanza of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, whose speaker proposes now to “sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds; / Whose prayses [have] slept in silence long” [emphasis added]. Such lexical resonances invite further parallels to be drawn.


Dylan’s mid-1960s lyrics presage the interest “Isis” develops in doubled identities, and historiographical limitations, in startlingly Spenserian terms. “Ballad in Plain D” writes its domestic tension into a romance landscape of fallen queens and kings, battlegrounds, and mysterious allegory, while its doubling of sister and parasite sister picks up the Faerie Queene’s fear of simulacra. Like Spenser’s witch Duessa, Una’s malevolent counterpart in Book 1, the False Florimel of Book 3, a deviant replica of the original, or the text itself which allows Elizabeth I “in mirrours more then one her selfe to see,” the woman who closely resembles Carla Rotolo “reflect[s]” “countless visions of the other,” her sister Suze (156). Louise in “Visions of Johanna” is a benign analogue, who “seems like the mirror,” but like Spenser’s prismatic reflections of Elizabeth I she “makes it all too precise and too clear that Johanna’s not here,” highlighting the song’s absent center (242). The “foggy ruins of time” (184) in “Mr Tambourine Man” cannot help but recall Spenser’s dream vision, The Ruines of Time (1591), where an idling narrator follows a muse-like apparition who, “sorrowfullie wailing,” mourns her lost city and Rome’s lost imperial standing (“Where my high steeples whilom usde to stand…There now is but an heap of lyme and sand”), working with the model of Joachim du Bellay’s Antiquitez de Rome (1558).[34] She anticipates both thematically and lexically the song’s “empire … returned into sand” which “Left me blindly here to stand,” although Dylan’s speaker cautions, “if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme … I wouldn’t pay it any mind” (184), advocating inattention in place of Lady Verlame’s plea for remembrance. As “Tangled Up In Blue” suggests, by the 1970s at least Dylan was aware of the canonical continental writing – “poems … written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century” (480) – which Spenser also knew well.[35] Hampton notes that “when questioned later in an interview about the ‘Italian poet’ Dylan slyly answered, ‘Plutarch. Is that his name?’”[36] Conventionally read as an example of Dylan’s puckish wit and anti-autobiographical evasiveness, the elision of Plutarch and Petrarch is also reminiscent of Spenser’s own framework of analogues, his tendency to provocative errors of allusion, and Britomart’s encounter with the goddess Isis in particular.[37] My aim here is not to make the case that Dylan and Levy had The Faerie Queene in mind when composing their own version of the Isis myth, but rather to posit that the suggestive similarities between the texts speak to a shared response to romance’s historiographical potentialities.


I. “there’s a body I’m trying to find”

The ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, perhaps dating to the Old Kingdom period (conventionally c. 2686–2181 BCE), is notably recorded in the classical tradition in Plutarch’s Moralia (first century CE ) and the Biblioteca Historica of Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE); Isis also appears as a pivotal figure in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (second century CE), translated into English in 1566 as part of the Elizabethan revival of ancient prose romance.[38] In Plutarch’s version of the myth, Osiris has led an esteemed life as king of Egypt, “reducing the whole earth to civility, by … effectuall remonstrances & sweet perswasion couched in songs, and with all maner of Musicke: whereupon the Greeks were of opinion, that he and Bacchus were both one” according to Philemon Holland’s early seventeenth-century translation.[39] He is tricked by Typhon (also known as Seth or Set) into climbing into a burial casket at a banquet; Typhon has it nailed and soldered shut, and hurls it into the Nile.[40] Isis “immediatly cut off one of the tresses of her haire … [and] wandred up and downe in great perplexity” searching for Osiris’s body, eventually finding it inside the coffer, only for it to be cut into fourteen pieces and scattered by Typhon. Later, in some versions, the pieces are gathered and reconstituted to resurrect Osiris as god of death. Osiris’s loss and return are tied symbolically to the Nile’s ebb and flood, and to the turning of the seasons.[41] Isis, Osiris and Typhon are all the children of the earth-god Seb and the sky-goddess Nut, their equivalents Cronos and Rhea according to Diodorus Siculus, or Mercury and Rhea in Plutarch; some accounts suggest that Isis and Osiris’s romantic relationship begins in the womb.[42] Isis approximates Demeter/Ceres, as a goddess of corn, spring and healing, as well as bearing parallels with deities like, among others, the Cretan cult goddess Britomartis.[43]


Since Isis is identified with the moon, the sowing of seeds and the consecration of temples, as well as the recovery of Osiris’s coffer, enclosed spaces recur in her iconography: the Moralia notes that “if we enter into that sacred place and holy religion of this goddesse … we shall atteine to the understanding of all things,” while the priests of Isis are those “that cary in their minde, and keepe enclosed as within a box or casket, the holy doctrine of the gods.”[44] As a result of Isis’s success as a monarch, according to Diodorus, “it was ordained that the queen should have greater power and honour than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy authority over her husband” (Bib. Hist. 1.27), an ordination brought to bear on the problematic nexus around Elizabeth I’s royal authority and resolute celibacy in relation to Britomart’s present martial dominance and future marital subordination in Spenser’s epic.[45] The “horned moon-goddess Isis,” and her equivalents Hathor and Astarte, are pivotal to Robert Graves’s account of the divine feminine principle in The White Goddess, a text which, in Chronicles, Dylan describes having read.[46] Graves does not retell the myth of Isis and Osiris directly, but delineates its permutations and parallels amongst British/Celtic legend, notably the echoes of Osiris’s rebirth as Harpocrates or Horus (Isis and Osiris’s child in the classical versions) to take his revenge on Set. The Welsh Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Llew Llaw as Graves has it) likewise emerges re-born from a chest, after the death of his former persona, named, as it happens, Dylan.[47]


Co-written with Levy, like much of Desire, “Isis” riffs on the myth in terms too broad to attribute to an individual source, but with its key building blocks integrated and transposed.[48] The distance between the song’s lyrics and the form of the myth, though, aside from a single reference to the pyramids and the name of its female antagonist (and any resonances we might heed between Isis’s wandering, Dionysian musician husband and the troubadour persona of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue performances), has restricted the critical exploration of its relationship to textual precedents. Indeed, Hampton proposes that “the literary subtext would seem to be Jack London – himself a writer of romance tales in prose – as we meet a hero who leaves the woman he loves in search of adventure in the North.”[49] Without discounting London, it is possible to recenter the story of Isis by considering Spenser’s means of integrating it into his own narrative, as explored below. It is difficult to pinpoint a single convincing reason why Dylan and Levy turned specifically to Egypt in the mid-1970s, although Cleopatra, self-styled new Isis, would have been a prevalent figure in popular culture thanks to the foregoing decade’s spate of classical blockbusters.[50] Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has been shown to adapt the Isis myth in a way which might be presented as comparable to Dylan and Levy’s practice, and was enjoying renewed critical attention in the mid 1970s, although it does not share further similarities with the song.51 It may be a stretch to suggest that the song’s composition was informed by the 1975-76 TV series, The Secrets of Isis, where the discovery of a magical amulet during an archaeological fieldtrip imbues chemistry teacher Miss Andrea Thomas with crime-fighting superpowers, and transplants the goddess to suburban Los Angeles, although as Ginsberg’s esoteric gloss stresses, after Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” in “Song of Myself,” the work “now lets loose his long-vowel yowls & yawps over smalltowns’ antennaed rooftops, To Isis,” perhaps integrating but also transcending contemporary pop cultural reference points.[52]


While a nexus of analogues does coalesce in 1975, it would seem as though Isis’s iconography had been on Dylan’s mind since at least 1974, as the “she” of “Shelter from the Storm” shares many of Isis’s conventional characteristics: for example,“With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair,” she offers shelter to a protagonist who has been “Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn,” two of Isis’s accustomed accouterments (494). Dylan explains to the interviewer Zollo that the name “Isis” was simply “familiar. Most people would think they knew it from somewhere,” and “according to Levy, the Egyptian iconography was mere cover” for the “hills of Wyoming.”[53] Unacknowledged here and in existing criticism, too, though, is a potential debt to Reed’s African-American westerns. In the poems “The Jackal-Headed Cowboy” and “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” (Conjure, 1972), for example, Reed elides Egyptian myth with a Black reworking of North American settler-colonist narrative and literary canon. These reflect, as I will suggest below that Spenser, Dylan and Levy also do, on “America, the mirage of a / naked prospector, with sand / in the throat.”[54]


In Dylan and Levy’s song, both Isis and her husband the narrator leave, one way or another, after their marriage:

I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her for very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
To that wild unknown country where I could not go wrong. (516)


He reaches a town where a stranger invites him to join an unspecified expedition; the narrator imagines a search for treasure, but learns that his companion intends to exhume a corpse from “the pyramids all embedded in ice.” As such, the narrator who had been aligned with Osiris by virtue of his status as Isis’s husband takes on Isis’s role in his search for a body, similarly cutting off his hair at the beginning of his journey, in what Day suggests is “a ritualistic act of head-shaving … that implies at once a loss of creative energy and a purification.”[55] But it also carries suggestive echoes of the female lover, Nancy, in the traditional Scots ballad “The Banks of the Nile” (in turn redolent of the cross-dressed Britomart) who proposes disguising herself as a soldier so as to accompany her beloved on his Napoleonic campaign:

Oh, but I’ll cut off my yellow hair,
and I’ll go along with you.
I’ll dress myself in uniform,
and I’ll see Egypt too.[56]


While fighting their way into the pyramid overnight during a storm, the stranger dies. Alone, the narrator “broke into the tomb, but the casket was empty” of both jewels and human remains, so he casts his companion’s corpse into the hole instead, perhaps taking on Typhon/Set’s part in Osiris’s interment. He then rides back to find Isis, and effect the remarriage which hovers beyond the song’s end. Both Dylan and Levy’s, and Spenser’s, dealings with Isis dramatize such ontological uncertainty and delay, in an unwonted Egyptian context.[57]


The listener is shown five aspects of Isis: the elusive bride of the first verse; the partial creature of the singer’s memory (“I still can remember the way that she smiled” / “I still can’t remember all the best things she said”); the goddess-like apparition “there in the meadow where the creek used to rise”; something of an unprepossessing interlocutor in the penultimate verse (“Where ya been?;” “You gonna stay?”); and audience to the final verse’s apostrophe: “oh Isis, you mystical child.” This shifting focalization and the cycling through of reported, free indirect, and direct speech results in a visionary iridescence, highlighted in Ginsberg’s gloss, “Moon Lady Language Creator Birth Goddess. Mother of Ra. Saraswati & Kali-Matoo. Hecate. Ea. Astarte. Sophia & Aphrodite. Divine. Mother,” and recalling Apuleius’s Isis who describes herself as “naturall mother of all things, mistresse and governesse of worlds, chiefe of powers divine, Queene of heaven.”[58] While we do not hear more about Isis’s appearance, this shimmering multiplicity captures Plutarch’s claim that “the habilliments of Isis be of different tinctures and colours: for her whole power consisteth and is emploied in matter which receiveth all formes, and becommeth all maner of things, to wit, light, darknesse, day, night, fire, water, life, death, beginning and end.”[59]


“Isis” sees its speaker undertake a quest cognate with the goddess’s, but crucially finds a casket empty rather than occupied. Critical treatment of the song has read the narrative, compellingly, as a search for the self, in terms also redolent of Street Legal’s “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat),” and its fight “with my twin, that enemy within” (557), making sense of the Osiris persona’s discovery of “his own” casket, although this resolution is not made explicit in such interpretations.[60] Casting the speaker and his companion necessarily as two sides of the same coin, or brothers Osiris and Typhon/Set, though, occludes the significance of Isis and Osiris’s mystical twinning, and Isis’s own “double nature, male and female.”[61] The undercurrents of transvestism and brother-sister incest which resonate with Desire’s “fusion of sister and wife, brother and husband, in ‘O Sister’,” and across the aesthetic of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, where Joan Baez dressed up and performed onstage as Dylan, align further with Spenser’s cross-dressed knight of chastity, Britomart.[62]


II. “you mystical child”

In Spenser’s poem, we first encounter Britomart when she is shown a vision in Merlin’s mirror of her destined husband, the knight Artegall. Like Osiris, Artegall has been tricked, this time by the Amazon Radigund, and has been imprisoned and forced to serve in Radigund’s castle, dressed in women’s clothing. Britomart, consumed by an erotic depression, rides out to search for him, dressed as, and frequently mistaken for, a male knight. She is approached on her journey by a stranger, Dolon, who offers her lodging; where Dylan and Levy’s “man in the corner approached me for a match,” with intimations of romantic pairing, mistaken identity and pugilism, Dolon also “weend, that this his present guest / Was Artegall” (5.6.34), remaking Artegall’s “match” with Spenser’s persistently fiery Britomart on a new semantic level.[63] By chance, she escapes Dolon’s attempt to trap her in his castle’s oubliette under a concealed hole in her bedchamber (5.6.27), and manages to throw him, in turn, into a river (5.6.40), having sought him and his sons through a sequence of empty rooms (5.6.35).[64] Later she arrives at Isis Church – whose presence in the mythical British landscape, and conspicuously Catholic character, go as unexplained as Dylan and Levy’s frozen pyramids – where, exhausted, she sleeps and dreams of a surreal interaction with the temple’s gods, in the midst of “an hideous tempest” (5.7.14), where she takes on the appearance of the goddess herself, and is threatened, then inseminated, by Isis’s crocodile, to conceive a lion child (5.7.16). Her dream is interpreted by one of Isis’s priests as symbolic of her successful, procreative marriage to Artegall, whom she subsequently rescues from Radigund and restores to his former status. This restoration, though, precipitates Artegall’s departure “Vppon his first aduenture, which him forth did call” (5.7.43). As a result, “hoping that the change of aire and place / Would change her paine, and sorrow somewhat ease,” the canto closes as “She parted thence, her anguish to appease” (5.7.45), ending much as the Dylan-Levy song begins, with “a recurrent pattern of separation and return,” elaborated by Scarlet Rivera’s vertiginous violin accompaniment.[65] Interpretation is theorized as the plot unfolds, in markedly distinct terms from the workmanlike topicality of Book 5’s wider allegory, as Britomart is drawn into the “inuent[ed]” (5.7.2) world of Egyptian myth.[66]


Spenser’s Isis is an elusive figure present only in Britomart’s vision at Isis Church, when her dedicated statue, “framed all of siluer fine” (5.7.6), seems to come to life.[67] For Bart van Es, “Isis Church is an exemplary site for the action of allegory … In a manner characteristic of the whole of The Faerie Queene, fictions and histories intertwine to the point where they become almost inseparable.”[68] Spenser does not dwell on the wider context of Isis’s legend, beyond noting that “Isis doth the Moone portend; / Like as Osyris signifies the Sunne” (5.7.4). But as Audrey Shaw Bledsoe first argued in an unpublished 1975 dissertation, Isis’s significance in Spenser’s poem is more than that of an orientalist set piece, and the myth of Isis and Osiris plays out more substantially in the story of Britomart’s quest to find Artegall across Books 3 to 5.[69] The myth’s shape is retraced not in the literal appearance of Isis, but through the two separate sequences which play on themes of loss and restoration, and intermediary chance meetings. Britomart is perhaps named after Britomartis, the Cretan goddess held to be equivalent to the ancient Greek Artemis, Roman Diana, and Isis herself, as well as carrying connotations of a martial Briton, and echoes of Ariosto’s Bradamante.[70] In addition to embodying the goddess as part of her dream, and mirroring her statue’s affective legibility (5.7.17), Britomart is “paralleled with Isis by the purpose of her journey” and, like Isis who epitomizes the union of masculine and feminine, “is both lover and beloved” according to the construction of Spenser’s chivalric world.[71] Building on Bledsoe’s analysis, I would suggest that both Dolon’s oubliette and the church itself function as figures for Osiris’s casket, where Britomart risks being lost and found respectively, such that she, like Dylan’s narrator, synthesizes Isis and Osiris’s roles.[72]


Lexical and thematic reverberations proliferate between the texts’ handling of personal transformations, brought about in the course of quests initiated by estrangement from a – once and future – romantic partner. Britomart, “By change of place seeking to ease her paine” (5.6.15), “streight her selfe did dight, and armor don; / And mounting to her steede bad Talus guide her on” (5.6.17), while Dylan and Levy’s protagonist follows suit, cutting his hair, washing his clothes and leaving on horseback “straight away.” The song’s “place of darkness and light” mirrors Spenser’s depiction of Britomart “Now seeking darkenesse, and now seekinge light” (5.6.14) in the physio-psychological torment of jealousy, fearing that Artegall has been unfaithful with Radigund (as Isis suspects Osiris of infidelity with their sister Nephthys). Just as the song has Isis (or perhaps the narrator) “blinded by sleep,” Britomart “Of sencelesse sleepe did deeply drowned lie,” “After that long daies toile and weary plight” (5.7.12), such that Spenser’s stanza and Dylan and Levy’s verse combine the revocation of sensory perception with their respective visions; an old trope, juxtaposing the loss of sight with vision of another sort. When Britomart finds Artegall, dressed by Radigund in women’s clothes, she asks in more homespun terms, “What May-game hath misfortune made of you?” when, likened to Homer’s Penelope, she sees “her Lord” “Come home to her in piteous wretchednesse, / After long trauell of full twenty yeares, / That she knew not his fauours likelynesse” (5.7.39). The Dylan-Levy speaker, too, Odysseus-like, appears changed at the moment of their reunion, and Isis’s series of questions and combative statements in the penultimate verse (“Where you been?”; “You look different;” “You been gone”) recalls Britomart’s questions of Artegall: “Where is that dreadfull manly looke?” “Could ought on earth so wondrous change haue wrought, / As to haue robde you of that manly hew?” (5.7.40). Spenser is at pains to emphasize how their gender roles switch back the longer Britomart spends in Artegall’s company, and, as Artegall is able to throw off his female clothing, “she reverses his reversal.”[73] The song’s narrator’s dominance over Isis is also reestablished in their final exchange, when her final question, “You gonna stay?,” gives him the last word.


Romance’s characteristic juxtaposition of narrative digression with intensity, or outrage, is brought to the fore by the two works’ parallel climatic diversity. Hanging over Dylan and Levy’s adventure narrative is the “drizzlin’ rain” which concludes the last verse. Discordant in the song’s quasi-Egyptian setting, this meteorological oddity either adds to the off-beat glamor of Isis’s wedding day, emphasized in performance by Dylan’s paradoxically euphoric delivery, or repositions the song in its final words as an act of recall located in a new, atmospherically distinct moment.[74] Its particular quality in Dylan’s song, though, echoes the climate of Spenser’s Cantos 6 and 7, also beset with drizzle: “shady dampe had dimd the heauens reach” (5.6.21), and “the day with dampe was ouercast” (5.7.8). Bledsoe notes that rainfall additionally heralds Britomart’s martial success and rescue of Artegall at the end of Book 4, augmenting her association with the fertility goddess, and, we might add, the seasonal desiccation of desert landscapes:

Like as in sommers day when raging heat
Doth burne the earth, and boyled riuers drie,
A watry cloud doth ouercast the skie,
And poureth forth a sudden shoure of raine,
That all the wretched world recomforteth againe.

So did the warlike Britomart restore
The prize, to knights of Maydenhead that day. (4.4.47-48)[75]


By contrast, the canto’s climax is accompanied by the “hideous tempest” and “stormy stowre,” just as snow and howling wind encircle the song’s central expedition (redolent of the Forty-Niners and their antecedents beset by snow en route to California).[76] For Britomart, the temple of Isis is ignited in her dream by the holy fire of its altar, going up in “outragious flames” (5.7.14); for Dylan and Levy’s narrator it is the snow which is “outrageous.” These oppositional extremes, ice and fire, frame the protagonists’ encounters with their Egyptian monuments, the connotations of excess and externality in tension with the enclosing dimensions of temple and icy carapace. Dylan’s excess is external and played for laughs, while Spenser’s is internal and all the more troubling for its multiple evocations of enclosed space.


Such containment is a pivotal trope in both sequences, as well as key to the “romancing” Gaston Bachelard notes as a function of enclosure in this essay’s epigraph. “Isis” frames the quest story between its two marriages, one past and one anticipated, and two references to the same wedding day, one in the first and one in the final verse, such that its account of the opening of the empty casket is itself enclosed formally. Britomart’s dream vision is embedded within the canto, book, and poem, but also within the structure of the temple, and imagines the conception of her child, the smallest in a sequence of narratological matryoshka dolls. Spenser’s use of “enwombed” to indicate Britomart’s insemination, after the crocodile itself had “deuoure[d] both flames and tempest” and “gan to threaten her likewise to eat” (5.7.15), sharpens the sense of layered containment through its aural proximity to the more conventional “entombed,” while Britomart’s account of the vision in turn renders the temple’s priest “fild with heauenly fury” (5.7.20, emphasis added). This in contrast to Britomart herself, who decides, looking at Isis’s temple, “that she thereon could neuer gaze her fill” (5.7.5), an aside in the stanza’s hexametric final line which restates her subjunctive role as dynastic vessel.[77]


Both texts, then, adumbrate nested fantasies of contents, and both protagonists find themselves dismayed the following morning, awaking from those fantasies. Britomart is troubled by her “uncouth” vision, and Dylan and Levy’s narrator by misguided credulousness: the song punningly echoes Britomart’s dream of consummation, when the narrator claims he “thought [he]’d been had.” Bachelard’s Poetics of Space invites readers to reframe their understanding of containment in language which sheds light on both structures: “Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being. But what a spiral man’s being represents! and what a number of invertible dynamisms there are in this spiral!”[78] Taken as a relational spiral, rather than opposition, the texts’ spatialities further support the holographic identities of their characters, and the varied material of their composition.[79]


III. “I came in from the east with the sun in my eyes”

Among his “panoramic” collaborations with Levy, “Isis” is one of Dylan’s “westerns,” “a distinct musical genre” within Dylan’s oeuvre, prompted by his involvement with Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and his collaboration with the playwright Sam Shepard during the 1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour.[80] Like Spenserian romance, the western amalgamates narrative and landscape, exploiting the relationship between myth and territory, to situate the song’s happenings at once in a dreamlike utopia, and amid the historical specificity of the nineteenth-century west and Dylan’s own failing marriage to his then wife, Sara.[81] For Katherine Weiss, Shepard and Dylan share an interest in making “familiar sites – historical landmarks that make up the myth of America – mysterious and mythic,” nowhere so clearly as in Dylan and Shepard’s co-written “Brownsville Girl” (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986), which weaves together an account of a half-remembered western movie with the narrator’s own romantic adventures in the American southwest.[82]


But the parallel texts’ adaptive practice more decisively recalls Christopher Hjort and Roger McGuinn’s accounts of Jacques Levy’s composition of Gene Tryp, a reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) which “transposed the setting to the American Wild West of the 1850s.”[83] Hjort foregrounds the multiplicity of the original in his retelling, citing Ibsen’s “wildly changing backdrop: the Norwegian mountain wilds; the coast of Morocco; the Sahara Desert,” and Peer’s assorted identities: “a fortune hunter, a bridegroom, a seducer, a troll prince, an outlaw, a businessman, a prophet, a Bedouin chief, a historian, and an old man.”[84] McGuinn, similarly, highlights this eclecticism in interviews about the project, telling John Carpenter of The Los Angeles Free Press, for example,

It’s set in the 1800s in the Southwest. It’s about this Bob Dylan-type cat who steals this bride away from this marriage, goes off into the hills, drops her, and finally falls in love with this other girl … He becomes an Elmer Gantry-type preacher, runs for president, goes through all these different scenes.[85]


Levy and Dylan’s interests in accumulative multiplicity and the southwest setting coalesce in “Isis,” which subjects the legend to a comparable process. As in Spenser’s poem, the myth’s components are fragmented and reconfigured, fusing its Egyptian architecture with the monumental geology of the western, and the sociology of the gold rush frontier with biblical cycles of burial and resurrection.


Dylan and Levy’s surreal superimposition of Egyptian mythology onto the mythopoeic landscape of the west, perhaps following Reed in ballad form, readily maps onto Britomart’s encounter with the goddess in the foundational romance-epic of ancient Britain.[86] Both texts play out in a setting that is alien to the protagonist, yet native to its audience, in as much as the environment of the western or romance is aesthetically and generically familiar yet situationally unknown. In this way, both conform to Bakhtin’s “chronotope” of the road, which “passes through familiar territory,” even as the “sociohistorical heterogeneity of one’s own country…is revealed and depicted,” as befits the national myth-making that both poets pioneered. [87] I want to suggest that this has more to do with the play of narrative frameworks in which Desire as a whole is so invested, than with the allure of romantic topography alone: drawing on Bachelard’s proposition in the Poetics of Space that “we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability…. In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time,” we may find compressed in Spenser, Dylan and Levy’s spaces their play with styles of retelling, where Bachelard’s “alveoli,” cavities or pockets in biological structures like the lungs, again captures the centrality of containment and enclosure to the workings of each of their journeys.[88]


Mark Sutton describes Dylan’s early songs as operating within an “unstable … epic landscape,” and claims that Dylan “is emphatically a rider,” transforming the landscape as he moves through it.[89] In “Isis” the narrator, transformed himself, is literally a rider: of ponies, not motorcycles, boxcars or semi cabs, although Ginsberg elides these tropes when his liner essay claims that “Old bards & Minstrels rhymed their years’ news on pilgrimage road – Visitations town to town singing Kings’ shepherds’ cowboys’ & lawyers’ secrets.”[90] Ginsberg’s list, and its evocation of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), in which kings’, shepherds’ and lawyers’ stories told aloud during a pilgrimage provide the vehicle for Chaucer’s capacious poetics and metatextual critique of narrative modes (not least the ironic pseudo-romance tale of Sir Thopas with its elusive elf-queen), in turn underlines Levy’s use of the romance mode to transpose eclectic but specific historical fragments, embedded in Desire’s sequence of assorted narratological experiments. Like Sir Thopas, and Spenser’s questing knights at their most hapless, Dylan and Levy’s narrator parodies his antecedents in epic and romance as the song takes aim at topographical allegory literalized in “the dividing line … through the center of town,” while potentially invoking the serious shadow of historical segregation.


Sutton locates the origins of Dylan’s 1960s highways in Whitman and Emerson, and the nation-building of the Puritan settler colonists, but “Isis” has its roots more securely in the cattle trading and gold mining frontiers of the cowboy ballads.[91] Those songs tell stories of life on the trail, frequently punctuated by dramatic weather events, tensions between static domesticity and rootless masculine individualism, lonely graves, and failed prospecting.[92] It seems clear that Dylan and Levy draw on this tradition here and elsewhere, but what is particularly striking is the writing of chivalric romance into the characterization of these songs and their protagonists by the Lomaxes’ editorial commentary, and even in some of the songs themselves: the hero of “The Cowboy and his Love” is a “knight of the saddle leather,” while John Lomax draws comparisons between the cowboy and King Arthur, calling the former “truly a knight of the twentieth century.”[93] Throughout, the mythic Englishness of the ballads themselves is emphasized.[94] The notoriously extractive Lomax notes that the cowboy songs “brought the gallantry, the grace, and the song heritage of their English ancestors”; and taking a more ostentatiously white-imperialist line, “Out in the wild, far-away places of the big and still unpeopled West … yet survives the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit.”[95] In these terms, the evident debts of “Isis” to the cowboy ballads in fact shore up its generic affinity with Spenser’s romance-epic, and allow the song’s own assimilation of colonial assault as literary allusion to be thrown into sharper relief.


Arguably carried along in the same inexorable current of the translatio imperii from the ancient Mediterranean empires to Renaissance England to colonial Ireland and the American frontier, Spenser and Dylan-Levy’s spaces can therefore be read as both generative symbolic landscapes which mythologize their nations’ histories, and very real coordinates on the same map of Anglo expansionism, which subsume their cultures’ colonial violence against Native Americans into confrontations with north African iconography. Richard Brown notes insightfully that “Dylan’s ‘roadmaps for the soul’ … enter a critical dialogue with the post-modern world and its phenomena of mediatedness by spectacle and simulacrum.”[96] However, the dazzle of postmodern arbitrariness distracts from the specific valency of the southwest’s material history, with which “Isis” obliquely engages, when Brown argues that “Isis”’s locations “have the character of a Gothic or medievalised Tolkienian landscape of fantasy.”[97] The archetypes brilliantly anatomized in Day’s analysis of the song, which sees “the much-prized attributes of the heroic ego … stripped to expose an aggressive, imaginatively barren and ultimately life-denying acquisitiveness,” may be said to speak directly to the clash between the frontier’s mythos and reality, effecting a historiographical, not a mythographical, intervention.[98] In Spenser’s Isis Church, too, the impact of the scene’s allusive collage is to bury the real plunder of the colonized west, whether Ireland or America, by combining European romance tropes with the appropriated otherness of the east, split off from its own originary significance.[99] These stories’ assemblages of literary and material spoils expose how the “adventure” fundamental to romance reproduces the accumulation of capital.[100]


Imperial acquisition transposed onto an ancient context renders its treasure-gathering archaeological, a move which foregrounds the slippage across the colonial and curatorial, while occluding the history of enslavement, human trafficking and Black objectification which this nexus of tropes works to center in Reed’s hands.[101] “Isis” reveals the queasy overlap between archaeology and grave robbing tacitly posited here, just as Chronicles would later voraciously recount the contents of Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel’s apartment: “There were other things laying around that would catch your eye – chalk sketches of Ferraris and Ducatis, books about Amazon women, Pharaonic Egypt, photo books of circus acrobats, lovers, graveyards.”[102] The narrator of “Isis” lists the eye-catching loot he imagines ahead of him (“I was thinking about turquoise, I was thinking about gold / I was thinking about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace”), like Spenser’s Britomart, who “ioyed to behold / Her selfe, adorn’d with gems and iewels manifold” in her dream, both reveling in the imagined acquisitive pay-off latent in their wandering.[103] The song’s turquoise, gold and diamonds elide southwestern and Meso-American territories and layer Egyptian myth with echoes of the gold rush, the European invasion of the Americas and the Spanish Entrada into New Mexico, while Spenser’s Isis establishes its own tensions between ancient, recent and current material cultures. The Protestant hero Britomart observes imagery and artifacts inappropriate to post-Reformation devotional practice in the idol’s temple (5.7.9-10), and in doing so identifies Catholicism with the “fayned,” “Old Ægyptian” religion (5.7.2), as well as figuring the cultural dislocation of colonial encounter.[104] Spenser’s writing itself has been understood in terms of the poetics of ruins, or of the archivist, and a similar aesthetics of allusion may be employed to describe the claim in Chronicles that “There was no noise in Ray’s place … only a graveyard silence and I’d always return to the books…dig through them like an archaeologist.”[105] In addition to modeling the assimilation of colonial plunder to an archaeological poetics, though, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Dylan-Levy “Isis” plunder not only antiquity’s textual artefacts, but also its models of adaptation and generic play.[106] If we understand the excavated artefact as a metaphor for the mechanism of literary allusion, the empty casket in “Isis” comes to read like a metaliterary joke, of a very Spenserian kind.


IV. “things will be different the next time we wed”

On December 4, 1975, Dylan opened his performance of “Isis” at Montreal with the words, “this is a song about marriage.” The claim is a piece of serio ludere, wryly acknowledging the audience’s appetite for confessional, and its own ironic inadequacy. This final section will consider the centrality of marriage to both Isis narratives, and how their authors’ negotiations of romance tropes put pressure on the ways in which a text may be “about” its subject. Like Dylan and Levy’s song about marriage, Spenser’s reworking of the Isis-Osiris myth also sets out “to symbolize the right relationship between man and wife,” and Spenser, Dylan and Levy compound the goddess Isis’s iconographic freight with layers of esoteric reinforcement, revivifying the number symbolism familiar from romance emblems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s pentangle with recently published (or re-published) mystical lore.[107] Day expands on the numerological import “of the fifth day of the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar”:

associated with the universal figure of the Great Goddess … five is also the mystic number of the hieros gamos, the archetypal Sacred Marriage of Heaven and Earth, the fruitful union of opposites, of sun and moon, of male and female principles.[108]


As such, the date contains “an image of a state of completed desire, of wholeness, of unified personality … though such a motif … far from controls the range of signification in the lyric.”[109] The song’s allusive vocabulary encompasses the unification of personalities but also of bodies, through marriage and sex as well as onomastically and anatomically. In the mid-1970s, for example, Dylan draws attention to the incestuous dynamics of romantic partnerships, claiming “I still believe she was my twin” in “Simple Twist of Fate” (482), and noting that Sara Dylan “has the same last name as Bob Dylan, but we may not be related.”[110] The Faerie Queene stresses the familial bond between the sun and moon, twins “sprong … in womb of Chrysogone” (3.11.9), and Artegall and Britomart’s comparable pairing. Spenser may well have had John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in mind in his conception of Britomart’s mystical merging with Isis, and its foreshadowing of her marital union with Artegall, since he places Britomart’s visionary transformation in the canto’s Stanza 13, echoing the union of the soul with the moon as expressed in Dee’s thirteenth theorem.[111] We can only speculate as to whether Dylan and Levy had sight of the 1975 edition of Dee which bore di Prima’s preface, perhaps via her Naropa University colleague Ginsberg, but it is also the thirteenth verse of their song which contains the narrator’s apostrophe to Isis, “you mystical child / What drives me to you is what drives me insane.” Here, the antanaclastic repetition of “drives” captures the song’s circularity, reflecting the “out-and-back” structure of the romance quest, its foundation in seasonal cycles, and the etymological basis of the lover’s lunacy in the cyclical phases of the moon.


However, while representing a union of masculine and feminine, Isis is also associated with bifurcated femininities; as Dave Marsh has it in his 1976 review of Desire for Rolling Stone, “‘Isis’ is on one of its several levels a sendup of the whole bitch/angel routine.”[112] The goddess Isis mirrors Nephthys, the sibling with whom she suspects Osiris has been unfaithful, just as Britomart and Radigund are, in Katherine Eggert’s words, “scarcely distinguishable … Britomart’s task is, evidently, to subdue herself.”[113] Britomart also acts as a counterpoint to Book 5’s Mercilla, another cipher for Elizabeth I and the center of the book’s most transparent allegory of justice, shadowing Elizabeth’s dealings with her own Scottish counterpart, Mary Stuart, in the baldest of terms, where Isis’s numinous allegory of equity is stripped away in favor of the personified “Iustice,” who “charged [Duessa] with breach of lawes” (5.9.44). While these layered pairings evince the formative freight of Isis’s double signification across the structure of Book 5, the stylistic, methodological opposition between Spenser’s treatment of Britomart as against Mercilla has laid the poem open to accusations of aesthetic collapse. I would like to situate Eggert’s response to these claims, that “we should see Book 5’s historical allegory … as an experiment whose failure is allowed to stand for all failures to impose univocal meanings upon complicated poems” alongside Marsh’s observation that Desire “only falters, in fact, when it attempts to write or rewrite real history,” in order to consider the relationship between “Isis” and the record’s final track, “Sara.”[114]


Hampton calls “Isis” “the mythic counterbalance to ‘Sara,’” highlighting the former’s opposition to the stark, poignantly quotidian detail of the latter, another song about marital separation.[115] However, this is to downplay the mysticism of “Sara” itself, and its participation in the tension between history and romance sketched out across the album at large. Where Isis is a “mystical child,” Sara is “mystical wife,” “radiant jewel,” and “Scorpio Sphynx” (530), emphatically reintegrating “Isis”’s esoteric tenor in an explicitly autobiographical setting; “glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow” adds the iconography of Artemis/Diana, or an Amazon warrior, in parallel to Britomart’s double in the Amazon Radigund. So, “Sara” cannot be said to renounce romance or the mythic; rather it turns these devices to the service of true, instead of fictive, history. However, the song seems willfully to pit autobiographical detail against metrical decorum, as in the overcrowded meter of,

Sleepin’ in the woods by a fire in the night
Drinkin’ white rum in a Portugal bar
Them playin’ leapfrog and hearin’ about Snow White
You in the marketplace in Savanna-la-Mar.


Real life cannot, it seems to insist, be committed to lyric; romance strains against the formal limitations of the song, and its circumstances. It is in this respect, I would argue, that “Sara” counterbalances “Isis,” presenting a failed biography whose romantic motifs are persistently out of sync with the song’s resolute rhythm, where the historical romance (and metrical organization) of “Isis” succeeds. In the same way, the adherence in “Sara” to postcard detail and emotional transparency confounds its legibility. The juxtaposition of “wherever we travel we’re never apart” with “don’t ever leave me / don’t ever go” in “Sara” does not restate but rather fumbles the point made by “Isis” about the mystical twinning of marital partners, and while Sara gives the speaker “a map and a key to your door,” the hermeneutic clarity for which these questing tools seem to stand remains, paradoxically, out of reach for the song’s audience, by contrast with the rich, multiple symbolism of “Isis”’s esoterica.


“Sara” must also be a song about marriage, but here the discourse of romance shuts down rather than opening up its mimetic potential, and instead marshals aesthetic failure to stand in for the limits of representation and reading. Just as Spenser’s Britomart and Isis provide a more potent interrogation of equity in their elision of history, mysticism and legend, “Isis” and “Sara,” heard together, point up the affective impact of history’s imaginative reworking through the adaptive technologies of what romance has come to mean.


Unlike the “embedded quotation” found in Dylan’s later work, “Isis” does not allude conclusively to Spenser.[116] However, if we hear “Isis” as a visionary reworking of the story that Spenser also retells, the song comes close to the spirit in which Spenser’s text responds to the Isis myth, bringing together Dee, Apuleius and Plutarch in a visionary miasma which is nonetheless structurally precise. Reading either quest as an escapist experiment obscures the precision of their operation within romance’s acknowledged usefulness as a tool for meta-historiographical insight, and the texts’ parallel articulations of their authors’ analogous archaeological poetics. In their recourse to romance, Spenser, Dylan and Levy’s Isis episodes bear out Bachelard’s injunction that in order to address a narrative’s historicity, “Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows.”[117] In its non sequitur, “I said, ‘Where are we goin’?’ He said we’d be back by the fourth,” the song encapsulates this essentially romantic entanglement of space and time.



I would like to thank Raphael Falco and my anonymous readers for their helpful suggestions for revision. I am also very grateful to Matthew C. Augustine, Abe Davies, Seamus Perry, Giulio J. Pertile, Neil Rhodes, and J. W. Hanson for their support of this project and comments on earlier drafts, as well as to the staff at the Norlin Library, University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beat Book Shop, Boulder CO, for accommodating some esoteric enquiries.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (London: Penguin, 1964), 105.

[2] Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (London: Penguin, 2017 [1972]), 166.

[3] Bob Dylan, Desire (1976), liner notes, in Bob Dylan, The Lyrics, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Simon and Schuster, 2004; 2014 edition), 512. All citations of Dylan’s lyrics before 2020 are taken from this edition, and page numbers are indicated in the main text.

[4] Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work (New York: Zone Books, 2019), 144.

[5] Hampton, Songs, 146-147.

[6] Hampton, Songs, 152.

[7] Hampton, Songs, 152.

[8] Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 330-31. All citations from The Faerie Queene are from Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (Harlow: Longman, 2001); book, canto and stanza numbers are indicated in the main text.

[9] Interview with Paul Zollo, SongTalk (1991), in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, ed. Jonathan Cott (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006; 2017 edition), 389-413, at 405-6.

[10] Scott Black, Without the Novel: Romance and the History of Prose Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), 1.

[11] Timothy Hampton, “Absolutely Modern: Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song,” Representations 132 (2015): 1-29; Hampton, Songs, 145.

[12] Allen Ginsberg, “Songs of Redemption” (1975), https://allenginsberg.org/2016/08/allen-ginsberg-on-bob-dylans-desire-2/, last accessed 18/10/21.

[13] T. S. Eliot, ““Ulysses,” Order, and Myth,” in Frank Kermode (ed.), Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), 177; 178.

[14] See Teskey, Moments, 331; Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2004), 40.

[15] See also Dore J. Levy, “Female Reigns: The Faerie Queene and the Journey to the West,” Comparative Literature, 39, no. 3 (1987): 218–36; D. A. Carpenter, “Restless Epitaphs: Revenance and Dramatic Tension in Bob Dylan’s Early Narratives,” in Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, ed. Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 37.

[16] Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 98-100. See also Jeff Dolven, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), especially Ch. 2; Andrew King, The Faerie Queene and Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[17] Janet Gezari, “Bob Dylan and the Tone Behind the Language,” Southwest Review, 86, no. 4 (2001): 480–99, at 489.

[18] Aidan Day, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 42.

[19] Dylan, Chronicles, 236.

[20] Allen Ginsberg, cited in Michael Denning, “Bob Dylan and Rolling Thunder,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, ed. Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 28-41, 38.

[21] Denning, “Rolling Thunder,” 40; Black, Without the Novel, 8-9.

[22] Katherine Eggert, Showing Like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 49.

[23] See, for example, Harry Berger, “‘Kidnapped Romance’: Discourse in The Faerie Queene,” in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 208-256, at 235-236.

[24] Timothy Hampton, “Tangled Generation: Dylan, Kerouac, Petrarch, and the Poetics of Escape,” Critical Inquiry, 39, no. 4 (2013): 703–31, at 730.

[25] Ginsberg, “Redemption.”

[26] Diane di Prima, preface, in John Dee, Monas Hieroglyphica, ed. J. W. Hamilton Jones (1975), [4].

27 See, for example, Blossom Feinstein, “The Faerie Queene and Cosmogonies of the Near East,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 29, no. 4 (1968): 531–50; Giulio J. Pertile, “Ashbery’s Pastoral Art,” The Yale Review, https://yalereview.yale.edu/ashberys-pastoral-art, last accessed 1 March 2018.

[28] Judith H. Anderson, “‘Myn Auctour’: Spenser’s Enabling Fiction and Eumnestes’ ‘immortal scrine’,” in Unfolded Tale, ed. Logan and Teskey, 16-31, at 31. Alice Miskimin, “Britomart’s Crocodile and the Legends of Chastity,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 77, no. 1 (1978): 17–36, at 32-33. See also A. C. Hamilton, “Spenser’s Treatment of Myth,” English Literary History 26, no. 3 (1959): 335–54, at 335

[29] See Andrew Muir, Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It (Red Planet Books, 2019), 229; also Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture (Farnham: Routledge, 2014), 188; Seth Rogovoy, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (New York: Scribner, 2009), 6; Christopher Rollason, ““Tell-Tale Signs” – Edgar Allan Poe and Bob Dylan: Towards a Model of Intertextuality,” Atlantis 31, no. 2 (2009): 41–56.

[30] Aidan Day, “Satan Whispers: Bob Dylan and Paradise Lost,” The Cambridge Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2010): 260–80, at 279; Rollason, “Intertextuality;” Allan H. Simmons, “‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations’: A Note on Possible Conradian Influences on Bob Dylan’s ‘Black Diamond Bay’,” The Conradian 20, no. 1/2 (1995): 103–8, Jim Salvucci, “Bob Dylan and Wallace Stevens in Conversation,” Dylan Review, no. 3 (2021); Raphael Falco, No One to Meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2022).

[31] See Muir, Dylan and Shakespeare, especially 279-352.

[32] Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes,” Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia Records, 2020).

[33] See Hampton, “Tangled Generation,” at 724.

[34] Edmund Spenser, “The Ruines of Time,” in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 225-261, at 233, 238.

[35] See also Ayesha Ramachandran, “Spenser’s Petrarch,” Spenser Studies 30 (2020): 205-214.

[36] “Italian Poet,” Expecting Rain, expectingrain.com/dok/who/who.html, cited in Hampton, “Tangled Generation,” at 716.

[37] The slippage also potentially hints etymologically at the shifting import of the source material from foundation stone to cash cow.

[38] Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Philemon Holland (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1603), 1292-1295.

[39] Plutarch, Moralia, 1292. See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), 187.

[40] See Stella P. Revard, “Isis in Spenser and Apuleius,” in Tales Within Tales: Apuleius Through Time, ed. Constance S. Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway (New York: AMS Press, 2000), 107-122, at 109.

[41] Plutarch, Moralia, 1293. See also Diodorus Siculus, Bib. Hist. 1.22.

[42] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, ed. Robert Fraser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 362.

[43] See Robert Viking O’Brien, “Astarte in the Temple of Venus: An Allegory of Idolatry,” Studies in Philology 96, no. 2 (1999): 144–58, at 146-47.

[44] Plutarch, Moralia, 1288. Cf. Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 182: “He fished her temple good. She showed him all her rooms.”

[45] See Eggert, Showing, 40-41.

[46] Graves, White Goddess, 98, 267; Dylan, Chronicles, 45.

[47] Graves, White Goddess, 312. In the Mabinogion tale “Math fab Mathonwy,” Dylan ail Don and Lleu are twin brothers.

[48] On Levy’s co-authorship see Day, Jokerman, 176.

[49] Hampton, Songs, 152.

[50] Interviews with Dylan also illustrate his preoccupation with the Egyptian contralto Umm Kulthum, of whose death in February 1975 he seems to have been keenly aware: see for example, interview with Ron Rosenbaum, Playboy (March 1978) Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, ed. Jonathan Cott (New York, 2006; 2017 edition), 214-250, 228.

[51] See Tina Barr, ““Queen of the Niggerati” and the Nile: The Isis-Osiris Myth in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Journal of Modern Literature 25, no. 3/4 (2002): 101-113. Their Eyes would be reprinted in 1978, following a dedicated Hurston seminar at the 1975 meeting of the Modern Language Association; see Hazel V. Carby, “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston,” in New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God, ed. Michael Awkward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 71-93.

[52] Day, Jokerman, 42-48; Ginsberg, “Redemption;” cf. Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (London: Harper Collins, 2017), 102.

[53] Essential Interviews, ed. Cott, 406; John McCombe, “Bob Dylan’s ‘Westerns:’ Border Crossings and the Flight from ‘the Domestic’,” in Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, ed. Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 121-140, at 135.

[54] Ishmael Reed, “The Feral Pioneers,” in New and Collected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1989), 13-14 at 13.

[55] Day, Jokerman, 38.

[56] The song was performed by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger on Classic Scots Ballads (1956), and Sandy Denny on Fotheringay (1970). A version appears in Bothy Songs and Ballads, ed. John Ord (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1930), 298.

[57] See Teskey, Moments, 439; 442. Suggestively, Teskey wonders of the Faery Queen, “Perhaps she is an African queen and painted up in whiteface” (441), as Dylan was for many of his Rolling Thunder Revue performances. See also Day, Jokerman, 43.

[58] Ginsberg, “Redemption;” Apuleius, The Golden Ass, quoted in J. David Macey, ““Fowle Idolatree” and Fair: Apuleius and the Idol of Isis Church,” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 4 (1999): 279–93, at 282; Graves, White Goddess, 67-68.

[59] Plutarch, Moralia, 1318.

[60] Hampton, Songs, 153-54; Day, Jokerman, 41.

[61] Plutarch, Moralia, 1304. See also Day, Jokerman, 41.

[62] Denning, “Rolling Thunder,” 39. See also Macey, “Fowle Idolatree,” at 281.

[63] See Artegall and Britomart’s contest, 4.6.18.

[64] See James E. Phillips, “Renaissance Concepts of Justice and Structure in The Faerie Queene, Book V,” Huntington Library Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1970): 103-120, at 113.

[65] Day, Jokerman, 45; see also 68.

[66] See Miskimin, “Crocodile,” at 19. See also René Graziani, “Elizabeth at Isis Church,” PMLA 79, no. 4 (1964): 376–89.

[67] See Jill Delsigne, “Reading Catholic Art in Edmund Spenser’s Temple of Isis,” Studies in Philology 109, no. 3 (2012): 199-224, at 214.

[68] Bart van Es, Spenser’s Forms of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 125; see also Carol A. Stillman, “Isis, Osiris,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton et al. (Toronto, 1990), 407; A. C. Hamilton, “Spenser’s Treatment of Myth,” English Literary History 26, no. 3 (1959): 335–54, at 352.

[69] Audrey Shaw Bledsoe, “Spenser’s Use of the Myth of Isis in The Faerie Queene” (PhD diss., Emory University, 1975). See also Revard, “Isis in Spenser,” 118.

[70] See Solinus, ix.8; Judith H. Anderson, “Britomart,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton et al. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1990), 113-115, at 113; Miskimin, “Crocodile,” at 21-22 and passim. See also Clifford Davidson, “Isis Church,” in Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. Hamilton et al., 407-8.

[71] Bledsoe, “Isis,” 50; 54.

[72] Britomart also notably spends time in her father’s closet, at 3.2.22.

[73] Levy, “Female Reigns,” at 225.

[74] See also Denning, “Rolling Thunder,” 30-31.

[75] Bledsoe, “Isis,” 66.

[76] Cf. Mark Sutton, “‘Roadmaps for the Soul’: History and Cartography in Bob Dylan’s Early Songs,” Australasian Journal of American Studies 28, no. 1 (2009): 17-33, at 32-3.

[77] See Delsigne, “Catholic Art.”

[78] Bachelard, Space, 228-29.

[79] See also Bachelard, Space, 231.

[80] Essential Interviews, ed. Cott, 405; McCombe, “Westerns,” 122.

[81] See, for example, van Es, Forms of History, 59-77.

[82] Katherine Weiss, “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and the Question of American Identity,” in Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, ed. Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 101-120, at 105.

[83] Christopher Hjort, So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star: The Byrds Day-by-Day 1965-1973 (London: Jawbone Press, 2008), 200.

[84] Hjort, Byrds, 200.

[85] Roger McGuinn cited in Hjort, Byrds, 200.

[86] See Tamsin Badcoe, Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), 148.

[87] M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), 245. See also Eduard Vlasov, “The World According to Bakhtin: On the Description of Space and Spatial Forms in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Works,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 37, no. 1/2 (1995): 37-58, at 55.

[88] Bachelard, Space, 30.

[89] Sutton, “Roadmaps,” 19; 24. See also Sally Bayley, Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), p. 18.

[90] Ginsberg, “Redemption.”

[91] Sutton, “Roadmaps,” 20. See also Frank Kermode and Stephen Spenser, “The metaphor at the end of the funnel,” in The Dylan Companion: A Collection of Essential Writing About Bob Dylan, ed. Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman (New York, 1990), 155-162, at 159-60.

[92] See McCombe, “Westerns,” 136. See, for example, “The Stampede,” in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Revised and Enlarged, ed. John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax (New York, 1934), 100-101; “The Trail to Mexico,” 55; “Cowboy Jack,” 230; “Lone Star Trail,” 22; “The Dreary Black Hills,” 374; “The Fools of Forty-Nine,” 382. Cf. Paul Hodson, “Bob Dylan’s Stories About Men,” in The Dylan Companion: A Collection of Essential Writing About Bob Dylan, ed. Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman (New York, 1990), 183-189, at 184.

[93] Anon., “The Cowboy and his Love,” in Cowboy Songs, 313; John A. Lomax, “Collector’s Note,” in Cowboy Songs, xxix.

[94] John A. Lomax, “The Editor Again,” in Cowboy Songs, xv; xxviii.

[95] John A. Lomax, “Collector’s Note,” in Cowboy Songs, xviii; xxv.

[96] Richard Brown, “Highway 61 and Other American States of Mind,” in Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, ed. Neil Corcoran (Vintage, 2002, 2017 edn.), 195-97.

[97] Brown, “States of Mind,” 213.

[98] Sutton, “Roadmaps,” 22; Day, Jokerman, 41.

[99] Walter S. H. Lim, “Figuring Justice: Imperial Ideology and the Discourse of Colonialism in Book V of The Faerie Queene and A View of the Present State of Ireland,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 19, no. 1 (1995): 45–70, at 67. See also Badcoe, Romance of Space, 4; 152.

[100] See Black, Without the Novel, 10-11.

[101] See Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones], Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Collins, 1963; 2002 edition), 16.

[102] See Nicholas Roe, “Playing Time,” in Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, ed. Neil Corcoran (Vintage, 2002, 2017 edn.), 81-104, at 86; Dylan, Chronicles, 41.

[103] See Day, Jokerman, 47.

[104] See D. Douglas Waters, “Spenser and the “Mas” at the Temple of Isis,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 19, no. 1 (1979): 43-53; Delsigne, “Catholic Art.” Cf. Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 194: “1 of the brothers told us 1 night that even the Catholic Mass was based upon a Black Egyptian celebration.”

[105] Dylan, Chronicles, 39-40. See Harry Berger, Resisting Allegory: Interpretative Delirium in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, ed. David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 18.

[106] See A. E. B. Coldiron, “How Spenser Excavates Du Bellay’s “Antiquitez;” Or, The Role of the Poet, Lyric Historiography, and the English Sonnet,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 101, no. 1 (2002): 41–67, at 43.

[107] J. H. Walter, “Further Notes on the Alterations to the Faerie Queene,” Modern Language Review 38, no. 1 (1943): 1-10, at 4 n. 3.

[108] Day, Jokerman, 37. See also McCombe, “Westerns,” 134, on the significance of Cinco de Mayo.

[109] Day, Jokerman, 38. See also McCombe, “Westerns,” 137.

[110] Essential Interviews, ed. Cott, 193.

[111] Delsigne, “Catholic Art,” 219. See also Kent R. Lehnhof, “Incest and Empire in the ‘Faerie Queene’,” English Literary History 73, no. 1 (2006): 215–43, at 228.

[112] Marsh, “Desire,” Rolling Stone, March 11 (1976), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/desire-255500/, last accessed 18/10/21.

[113] Eggert, Showing, 41. See also Teskey, Moments, 436.

[114] See Eggert, Showing, 49; Marsh, “Desire;” see also Brown, “States of Mind,” 193.

[115] Hampton, Songs, 152; see also Richard Brown, “States of Mind,” 213. Cf. Day, Jokerman, 48.

[116] Rollason, “Intertextuality,” 51.

[117] Bachelard, Space, 33.

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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.

The Hal Lindsey Effect: Bob Dylan’s Christian Eschatology 

ARTICLE BY Jeffrey Lamp, Oral Roberts University

Abstract: In the thought of popular Christian personality Hal Lindsey, Bob Dylan found a theological construct that would inform his own Christian experience in three significant ways. First, Lindsey’s popular eschatological teaching informed Dylan’s own understanding of the end times, which is evident in his lyrics and in his more prosaic pronouncements. Second, Lindsey provided Dylan with a heuristic for bringing together the Jewish and Christian strands of his religious pilgrimage. Third, Lindsey’s views on Israel’s place in God’s end-times plan and his stance that human political influences played no significant role in establishing the kingdom of God informed Dylan’s political philosophy of “Christian anarchism.”

Keywords: Bob Dylan, Hal Lindsey, eschatology, Christianity



Bob Dylan’s so-called “Christian/gospel period” has received renewed, and in many cases appreciative, attention in recent years. In 2017 a pair of key works documented Dylan’s output during the period 1979–1981, the years in which Dylan’s albums Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love appeared. The thirteenth entry in the Bootleg Series, titled Trouble No More, a nine-disc set that included studio and live recordings from this period along with Jennifer Lebeau’s documentary film of the same title, was released, along with Clinton Heylin’s book, Trouble in Mind, which provided a narrative of the period. With reports of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in 1978, the release of the gospel-themed Slow Train Coming in 1979, and a gospel-only tour launched later that year, Dylan’s fan base reeled in shock and, not infrequently, anger. The passage of nearly four decades has allowed for a more reasoned appraisal of the material from this period, with scores of studies emerging in academic circles analyzing both the music and its creator.[1]     

My initial interest was to determine theological influences on Bob Dylan’s eschatology, as seen in such songs as “When He Returns” and “Are You Ready?” As it turned out, a strong candidate quickly emerged: Hal Lindsey, a well-known minister whose famous book The Late Great Planet Earth had captured the imaginations of millions of readers in the 1970s with its sensationalistic interpretation of biblical teachings on the end times. This finding was not only obvious; it was highly disappointing. As I continued my research, I began to see that the influence of Lindsey’s book on Bob Dylan was more intricate. Anticipating the results of this study, Hal Lindsey’s eschatology functions in a multi-faceted way in Dylan’s thought. At a basic level, Lindsey provides the newly converted Dylan with a specifically Christian source of imagery to direct Dylan’s long-established appropriation of prophetic biblical language in his new gospel way. At another level, Lindsey’s emphasis on the role of Jews and the current state of Israel in God’s end time program provided Dylan with a heuristic that allowed him to integrate the Judaism of his background with his new Christian faith. At yet another level, Lindsey’s thought provided Dylan a way to express what has been called his political “anarchism” in a way consistent with his new Christian faith.[2] First, though, we need to look at what Hal Lindsey brings to the table and how he and Bob Dylan found themselves there together.

The Dylan-Lindsey Connection

Hal Lindsey, born November 23, 1929, is a well-known twentieth- (and twenty-first-) century figure on the American religious landscape, having first and most prominently made his mark with the publication of his best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970.[3] Lindsey was educated at Dallas Theological Seminary, the educational bastion of a theological position known as dispensationalism. In its basic form, dispensationalism holds that God’s dealings with human beings follow in a series of historical epochs, or dispensations, each administered by a certain kind of covenantal relationship. The foundations of dispensationalism involve creative exegesis of such biblical texts as Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel, along with apocalyptic passages from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24:1–44; Mark 13:1–26; Luke 21:5–28) and passages from certain of Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 9–11, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12). Lindsey made his own distinctive contribution to dispensationalism by providing a further degree of exegesis that included reading certain twentieth-century events into the dispensational framework. The resulting presentation was The Late Great Planet Earth, a highly sensational prophetic oracle that portrayed recent history as the harbinger of the impending end of the age.

For Lindsey, the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 marked a key event in God’s prophetic program. It marked the point at which God would begin to fulfill ancient promises made to the Jewish people but that had been put on hold with the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and the inauguration of the “church age” in which Gentiles would be granted access to God’s kingdom. It also marked the beginning of the last days. It would only be a short time before the church would be “raptured” from earth to heaven by Jesus, the world would enter into a seven-year period of tribulation, and Jesus would return and establish his 1,000-year-long, or millennial, reign on earth with his redeemed people. Precursors to this event were certain portents, such as famines, earthquakes, and wars. But most fantastically, recent historical events were sure signs that these things were about to come to pass. Lindsey read certain political movements and crises as fulfillments of biblical prophecies. The emergence of Arab nations surrounding the state of Israel and their growing economic and military power were a constant threat to God’s chosen people. Moreover, Cold War tensions were a sign that the Soviet Union would become the great Gog and Magog that would attack Israel from the North (cf. Ezekiel 38–39) in the last days. China would be the great force from the East that would join the battle (cf. Revelation 9:16), and the European Economic Community, which would be a revived Roman Empire headed by the Anti-Christ (cf. Daniel 2:42), would attack from the west. The climactic battle would occur in the battle of Armageddon (cf. Revelation 16:13–16), where the Messiah would decisively crush these forces. Significantly, Lindsey did not see the United States prefigured in biblical prophecy, which may indicate, in his thinking, that the United States had ceased to be a major world player by the time of these events. Nevertheless Lindsey does speak to the degrading moral condition of the United States throughout the book, seeing this as portending the coming of the last days.

The point of intersection between Lindsey and Bob Dylan takes place within the context of the emerging Vineyard Fellowship, a loosely connected group of worshiping communities in Southern California founded by Kenn Gulliksen. Gulliksen was on the staff of Calvary Chapel under the pastoral leadership of Chuck Smith when he established a church in Los Angeles in 1974. Dubbed the “pastor of love” by Smith,[4] Gulliksen found a following among the so-called Jesus People Movement of the 1960s and attracted several actors and musicians with Vineyard’s laid back atmosphere and contemporary worship style.[5] The Vineyard at this point did not have a formal theological statement. Hal Lindsey identified with the Vineyard early on and had become close friends with Gulliksen,[6] and so Lindsey’s eschatological teaching unofficially became the position of the Vineyard.

Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity took place within the context of the Vineyard Fellowship. In early 1979, his girlfriend at the time, Mary Alice Artes, had been attending a Vineyard church and facilitated a meeting between Dylan and some pastors on staff, Larry Myers and Paul Emond.[7] After his conversion, Dylan surprisingly attended the Vineyard’s School of Discipleship,[8] where some of the themes of Lindsey’s eschatological vision were taught.[9] Dylan also read The Late Great Planet Earth, and was quite taken with it.[10]

Dylan’s familiarity with this book is confirmed in an account by music writer James Riordan on the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday.[11] Riordan had just relocated to the Los Angeles area in 1978 and somewhat out of the blue decided to visit a Vineyard Fellowship church service. Sitting near the back, he heard someone singing along to “Amazing Grace” in a rather distinctive voice. He turned and saw it was Dylan. Deciding not to encroach on Dylan’s space in church, Riordan after the service went to the bookstore onsite and perused the latest edition of Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. From behind him, Dylan made the comment, “Hey, that’s a pretty good book, ain’t it?” Part of Riordan’s motivation for moving to Los Angeles was to make the book into a film (though this was already underway). Deciding not to share this with Dylan, he simply agreed with Dylan’s assessment of the book and the two parted ways. As Riordan made his way to his car in the parking lot, Dylan pulled up to him, rolled down his window, and said, “Hey, see you next week, huh?” This sparked a brief conversation where Riordan shared with Dylan his intention to make Lindsey’s book into a film. According to Riordan, Dylan gave him his phone number and asked Riordan to call him should he be able to schedule a meeting with Lindsey’s people. Riordan was never able to connect with Dylan after that, and the plan for the movie never came to fruition. Yet the anecdote, if true, illustrates Dylan’s connection with Lindsey’s book.

In 2017, Seth Rogovoy wrote a piece in the Jewish online magazine, Forward, in which he shared his change of opinion on the quality of Dylan’s work during his gospel period. Asking the question, was Bob Dylan at his best when he was a Christian?, Rogovoy noted the importance of Hal Lindsey’s book in Dylan’s new Christian walk, saying, “Dylan was very much parroting Lindsey’s line” in his songs and stage raps.[12] Someone brought this piece to Lindsey’s attention, so on his website, Lindsey rejoiced that after four decades, someone still “blames” Lindsey for his role in Dylan’s Christian conversion.[13] Just how much Lindsey is to “blame” for Dylan’s conversion is debatable, but there is no question that, at least in matters of helping Dylan express his newfound Christianity and his own eschatological views, Lindsey’s influence is significant.   


Lindsey and Dylan: The Verbal Connection

To be sure, Bob Dylan did not need Hal Lindsey to introduce him to the prophetic biblical texts that informed some of Dylan’s gospel-era songs. Dylan’s indebtedness to the Bible for his imagery has been well-established.[14] As he has stated in an interview with John Pareles of The New York Times in 1997,[15] Dylan’s lexicon and prayer book for his beliefs are the songs of his early musical nurture, extending as far back as the 1930s. Though Jewish, Dylan found inspiration in the gospel songs of such acts as the Carter Family. Many of these songs, interestingly, emerged from a strand of twentieth-century fundamentalist Christianity that was quite at home within classical dispensationalism. Moreover, his early upbringing as a bar mitzvahed Jewish boy certainly exposed him to some of the biblical sources of this faith, including prophetic texts, and Dylan’s visits to Israel in the earlier part of the 1970s seem to indicate an interest in his Jewish background. Moreover, Dylan did not need Lindsey to introduce him to apocalyptic imagery, as songs such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” clearly indicate. Finally, he did not need Lindsey to provide him with the worldview of biblical prophetic justice. Theologian Francis J. Beckwith has argued, “[I]f one carefully inspects Dylan’s Christian albums, one will find an individual who found in the Christian faith an account of the deep moral and social principles that had been lurking behind his pre-Christian work for quite some time.”[16] So if Dylan was conversant with biblical imagery that is related to the kinds of pronouncements Lindsey made, what does Lindsey’s particular expression have to do with Dylan?

If the songs in some way function as Dylan’s lexicon, then it may be fair to say that Lindsey provided the new Christian Bob Dylan with a syntax for expressing this vocabulary. This may be seen in his lyrics, his on-stage raps during his gospel tour of 1979, and in interviews. To each of these we now turn.

The Lyrics

Songs from the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved show clear influence of the brand of eschatology touted by Lindsey. In the song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” Dylan draws from New Testament references to the return of Jesus in the following verse:

Jesus said, “Be ready

For you know not the hour in which I come”

Jesus said, “Be ready

For you know not the hour in which I come”

He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me”

Just so you know where He’s coming from [17]

The suddenness and inability to know of the time of Jesus’ return is standard biblical teaching. Dylan’s emphasis in the final line, laying out the battle lines of allegiance, though biblical, is put here in the context of Jesus’ return. Such an emphasis is at home in Lindsey’s dispensational framework, where eternal destiny is determined based on one’s fealty to Jesus in the final hour.

In many segments of Christianity, the return of Jesus is not viewed in such dread terms. Rather, it is an event that constitutes the very hope of Christians wherein God in Jesus Christ “sets the world to rights,” bringing an end to every evil and establishing a kingdom of joy and righteousness.[18] Yet Dylan, like Lindsey, seems preoccupied with the wrathful side of this event. This is seen clearly in “Are You Ready?”

Are you ready for the judgment?

Are you ready for that terrible swift sword?

Are you ready for Armageddon?

Are you ready for the day of the Lord?[19]

In an alternative couplet from the song “When You Gonna Wake Up” Dylan warns of the sword of judgment that waits to be wielded against those who work unrighteousness in the world when Jesus comes back for his people:

there’s a sword being flashed for all those in sorrow & despair

you won’t find it so hard to imagine when you meet it in the middle of the air [20]

This delight in the judgment and wrath of God at Jesus’ return finds further expression in “When He Returns.”[21]

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod

The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God

. . .

Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn

For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right

When He returns (verse 1)

. . .

He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew (verse 2)

. . .

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask

. . .

Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned

He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne

When He returns (verse 3)

In some discarded lyrics to this song, Dylan connects the biblical teaching to specific historical circumstances of the time. Verse 1 finds the following alternative lyrics:

The communists might be frightenin’ you cause they only believe in man

& the capitalists might be exploitin’ you cause that’s part of their plan [22]

Verse 3 has alternative lines toward the end of the verse:

He’s got His own blueprint for a new government

It’s been prophesized from the beginning of time that He’ll return.[23]

Communists and capitalists alike, with the specific evils of each, will meet a woeful end when Jesus returns to establish his kingdom. The return of Jesus brings with it a cataclysmic end to the current order of things.

In “Trouble in Mind,” an outtake from the Slow Train Coming sessions, Dylan provides alternative lyrics that indicate he sees even the neutron bomb as prophesied from the beginning:

Neutron bombs—

It’s all been predicted

It’s all been foretold [24]

A key element of Lindsey’s interpretation of end time events is that the final conflagration leading to the world’s destruction is nuclear weapons. Dylan seems to agree.

This focus on contemporary events as evidence of an eschatological timetable is further attested in “Slow Train.” Here, in the following lyrics, the rise to economic and political power of Arab nations controlling America’s destiny is evidence that the “slow train comin’ up around the bend” draws ever closer:

All that foreign oil controlling American soil

Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed

Sheiks walkin’ around like kings

Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings

Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris

And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend [25]

Such a situation certainly has “Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave” in the home of the brave. In Lindsey’s calculus, the precise role that America plays in the final stages of the eschatological drama is unclear, yet America’s worsening predicament in the world is a harbinger that the time of final reckoning draws nigh.

Even an ostensible love song, “Precious Angel,” contains allusions to Lindsey’s particular eschatology. Dylan laments his friends’ deception as the end time approaches and the dreadful consequences of their delusion:

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell

They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”

Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high

When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?[26]

In an alternative verse, Dylan provides more Lindsey-esque detail of the final battle between good and evil, again, in what is framed as more of a love song.







It is interesting that Dylan, even in the time when his faith convictions would come under scrutiny, continued to draw on this type of imagery in his lyrics. On the album Infidels (1983), “Neighborhood Bully” is a song that expresses Lindsey’s assessment of the current state of Israel in God’s eschatological program. The final descriptors of this “bully,” which clearly represents modern-day Israel, show him “standing on the hill / Running out the clock, time standing still,”[28] perhaps alluding to the role of this bully as the time of the end approaches. Indeed, in verse 8, where the established lyrics say, “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone / Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon,” an alternate lyric replaces the list of empires with the line, “& by one miracle or another he keeps going on,” accompanied by a marginal note that seems to connect this line to the date 1948, the year in which the modern state of Israel was established.[29] The year 1948, as we noted earlier, is a crucial sign post in Lindsey’s eschatological framework.     

In the years to follow, there would be occasional instances where Dylan’s lyrics reflect the imagery of Lindsey’s dispensational eschatology. On 1990’s Under the Red Sky, the song “God Knows” seems to reflect the imagery of the judgment of the earth in terms drawn from 2 Peter 3:6–7, an important passage in Lindsey’s scheme: “God knows there’s gonna be no more water / But fire next time.”[30] In a similar vein, “Things Have Changed,” from the soundtrack of the movie Wonder Boys, contains the line, “If the Bible is right, the world will explode.”[31] Again, this line is not at all a clear reading of the Bible; it is a clear reading of Lindsey’s eschatology.

In this brief survey of lyrics, there is at least circumstantial evidence that Dylan’s thought is influenced by Lindsey’s eschatology. One might argue that what we see here is nothing more than Dylan’s penchant for drawing imagery from the Bible. What we need to realize is that for centuries, Christians interpreted these biblical images in ways quite different from how Lindsey would come to understand them, and indeed, most Christians on earth today would take issue with Lindsey’s interpretations. What we see here is a particular slant on these passages that coheres closely with Lindsey’s. In other words, the biblical data themselves do not necessitate this interpretation. They only take on this interpretation when seen through a particular filter. Given Dylan’s early Christian context, it is reasonable to assume Lindsey provides this filter.

The Stage Raps

Of course, the lyrics provide the most substantial source for comparison with Hal Lindsey’s teaching. Another source, however, is the words Dylan frequently spoke during his concerts, especially during the gospel-only shows in November and December 1979. From November 1–16, Dylan performed fourteen shows in the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, California. The reaction to these shows, to be charitable, was mixed. On the one hand, the sheer energy of the music captivated many in attendance; on the other, many bristled at the gospel-only setlist, with some calling for Dylan to play his old material and others leaving the theater.

Regardless of its reception, the 1979 tour is useful for how Dylan addressed eschatological matters from the stage. As Dylan began his tour in San Francisco, his pronouncements amounted to little more than an introduction to his song, “Solid Rock.” Typical is the rap from November 6, when he offered about a sentence of eschatological warning: “You know we’re living in the last days of the end of times. In the last days of the end of times, you’re going to need something strong to hang on to, so this song is called ‘Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World.’ You’re gonna need something that strong.”[32] Throughout the Warfield Theatre shows, this song’s introduction would stay mostly consistent in wording and duration. 

As the venue shifted to the Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, California, for four shows November 18–21, the raps became more frequent and more developed. On the opening night of this leg of the tour, Dylan introduced the song “Slow Train” in the following way: 

I suppose you’ve been reading the newspapers and watching the TV? And you see how much trouble this world is in. Madmen running loose everywhere. Anyway we, we’re not worried about that though — it doesn’t bother us — because we know this world is going to be destroyed. Christ will set up his kingdom for a thousand years in Jerusalem where the lion will lie down with the lamb — we know this is true. No doubt about it. So, it’s a slow train coming. It’s been coming for a long time, but it’s picking up speed.[33]

Here Dylan draws attention to the destruction of the present world and the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, both key themes in Lindsey’s framework. Here we also see appeal to current events as portents of the approaching end of times.

When the tour stopped in Tempe, Arizona, for two shows at the Gammage Center November 25–26, Dylan began with a rap that added such typical Lindsey features as the battle of Armageddon, the involvement of Russia in the Middle East, and even the very near imminence of the end:

All right. Now don’t be dismayed by what you read in the newspapers about what’s happening to the world. Because, now, the world as we know it now is being destroyed. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s . . . it’s the truth. In the matter of a short time—I don’t know, maybe in three years, maybe five years, could be ten years, I don’t know—there’s gonna be a war. It’s gonna be called the war of Armageddon. It’s gonna happen in the Middle East. Russia’s gonna come down and attack first and you watch for that sign. Anyway, we’re not worried about that. We know there’s gonna be a new kingdom set up in Jerusalem for a thousand years. And that’s where Jesus will set up his kingdom, as sure as you’re standing there, it’s gonna happen. So this is called, “Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World.”[34]

The importance of this evidence is that it is prosaic in presentation. Lyrical presentation, especially Dylan’s, is always open to various interpretations due to its poetic nature. But these raps are more homiletical in nature and give insight into the sources of his pronouncements. The themes here strongly “parrot” Lindsey. We see Dylan getting bolder and more comfortable as he proclaims his message of the end of days, and his words could not be more clear for those with ears to hear.

The Interviews

It is with a bit of trepidation that one looks to interviews to discover what Dylan thinks on any topic. Rightly or wrongly, he has a reputation for being, at the very least, elusive with interviewers. However, on the topic of eschatology, he does give indications that he is being straightforward with his responses. Of particular interest here will be an interview conducted by Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone magazine in the June 21, 1984, issue. This interview is important for two reasons. First, it very clearly shows affinity with the views of Hal Lindsey on eschatological matters, and second, it was conducted at a time when Dylan was publicly less expressive of his Christian beliefs. His commitment to Christianity had come under severe scrutiny. The interview shows that, whatever his spiritual state, he remained steadfast in his understanding of how the world will come to its end.

When asked about his spiritual stance, Dylan replied first by affirming belief in a life beyond this one, then added, “I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they’re not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He’ll do things, and they’ll say, ‘Well, only God can do those things. It must be him.’”[35] Dylan’s attribution rings more true of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4 than it does the Book of Revelation, but he captures the spirit of this antichrist figure so prominent in Lindsey’s thought. Following a line of questioning by Loder on the song “Neighborhood Bully,” where Loder presses Dylan on whether the song is an expression of Zionism or support for American military intervention on Israel’s behalf in the Middle East, Dylan denies such intentions for the song and diverts attention to the battle of Armageddon: “The battle of Armageddon is specifically spelled out: where it will be fought, and if you want to get technical, when it will be fought. And the battle of Armageddon definitely will be fought in the Middle East.”[36] Again, vintage Lindsey.

Dylan also reflects Lindsey’s sense of uncertainty regarding the place of the United States in God’s eschatological timetable. Commenting on how the world had become more global, with the United States losing its sense of identity, Dylan attributes this evolution to the spread of instantaneous global communication in fulfillment of the book of Revelation.[37] One frequent plank of Lindsey’s end time scheme is the idea that in the last days, knowledge and travel will increase exponentially, evidence of humanity’s arrogant overreach (cf. Daniel 12:4). The smaller, global world already present in the 1980s figures into America’s decline and acquiescence to the one-world government and economy under the leadership of the Antichrist, another key element of Lindsey’s scheme. Dylan seems to decry this move toward globalism and America’s place in the last days when he says,

Somebody’s gonna have to come along and figure out what’s happening with the United States. Is this just an island that’s going to be blown out of the ocean, or does it really figure into things? I really don’t know. . . . Right now, it seems like in the States, and most other countries, too, there’s a big push on to make a big global country—one big country—where you can get all the materials from one place and assemble them someplace else and sell ‘em in another place, and the whole world is just all one, controlled by the same people, you know? And if it’s not already there, that’s the point it’s tryin’ to get to.[38]

Again, Dylan, in 1984, still “parrots” elements of Lindsey’s eschatological scheme, at a time when his own spiritual status seems unclear to the public. Whether through his lyrics, stage raps, or interviews, Dylan’s words frequently and over time betray an indebtedness to modes of expression at home with Lindsey’s eschatological worldview.     

Lindsey and Dylan: A Spiritual Heuristic?

Is he or isn’t he still a Christian? This question has fascinated observers of Dylan and popular Christian culture for decades now. With the release of the album Infidels in 1983, many questions emerged as to whether Dylan had forsaken his commitment to Jesus Christ and returned to Judaism. In 1985, Vineyard Fellowship pastor and Fuller Theological Seminary professor Don Williams wrote a monograph to argue that Dylan had not discarded his Christian faith,[39] and as late as 2017, Dylan’s spiritual journey was the subject of an investigation by Scott M. Marshall in his book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. In a provocative essay, Kathryn Lofton raises the prospect that in the study of history, it is very difficult, if at all possible, to know precisely what a person believes on any point because our subjects tend to be wilier and more equivocal in cataloguing their beliefs than our attempts to catalog their beliefs would suggest. Bob Dylan is the case study for her thesis.[40]

I will not here seek to address the question directly. Rather, I will work from the premise that Marshall’s recent study provides the best overall take on what we may surmise about Dylan’s spiritual life.     

Marshall’s study is a broad survey of Dylan’s whole life, seeking to frame the religious question in terms of a spiritual odyssey rather than a static taxonomic determination. Rather than seeing Dylan starting out as a Jew, discarding this in favor of evangelical Christianity, only to reject that in favor of a more informed Judaism following studies with members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect known as the Lubavitch, Marshall argues that Dylan’s life and art reflect a spiritual quest that has evolved and developed without rejecting any of these elements. Rather, Dylan’s odyssey is a robust integration of all of these inputs. Marshall’s conclusion is that from his childhood, Dylan’s life and art have been the product of a synthetic engagement with both the Jewish and Christian strands of the biblical tradition. In his review of Marshall’s book, Francis Beckwith puts it this way: “Part of Marshall’s thesis is that the Dylan who emerges from his 1983 Lubavitch studies, and subsequently releases Infidels, is not a restored Jew who has rejected Christ, but rather, a Hebrew Christian who has a better and deeper sense of his Judaism and the way it shapes his understanding of the biblical narrative and his relationship with God.”[41] Beckwith, we should note, deems Marshall’s conclusions as speculative, though “based on very good grounds.”

So if this assessment, speculative though it is, has any merit, how might Hal Lindsey’s thought have contributed to this odyssey? It is interesting to note that Lindsey is not mentioned by name, nor included in the index, in Marshall’s study. Yet I suggest that if indeed Lindsey has so influenced Dylan’s lyrics and prosaic pronouncements as we have argued earlier, it would stand to reason that perhaps Lindsey has contributed to Dylan’s ability to integrate both the Jewish and Christian strands of his spiritual journey.

Whatever the theological and exegetical merits of Lindsey’s program, one fact is undeniably clear: Lindsey’s program has a place of inclusion for the Jewish people in God’s end-time program that appreciates them as Jewish without the overtones of anti-Semitism that has often colored Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries. The current nation-state of Israel, even though constituted largely as a secular state, plays a crucial part in the unfolding of the last days leading to God’s ultimate triumph over the powers of evil. The unfulfilled promises of God toward the houses of Judah and Israel are not spiritualized as referring to the Christian church, as in some Christian theologies.[42] Rather, they are understood as yet-to-be-realized prophecies for the actual, historical Jewish people. Such an understanding would likely appeal to Dylan, who had become a Christian after visiting Israel in the 1970s and coming to a deeper appreciation of his own Jewish heritage. This interpretation could help him better understand a God revealed in Jesus the Messiah, a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, one who has not cast off the historical chosen people. So perhaps Hal Lindsey’s brand of dispensationalism provided a heuristic for Dylan to navigate his way through a conversion to Christianity in such a way as to not only accommodate his Jewish heritage, but also to be enriched by a deeper understanding of this heritage.

Lindsey and Dylan: A Political Framework?

From his earliest days as a public figure, Bob Dylan has been appropriated by various political movements despite his frequent protestations that he is not a voice for any generation or political position. His early embrace of folk music and so-called “protest songs,” his appearance at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, March on Washington in 1963, and performances at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993 notwithstanding, Dylan has mostly avoided endorsing specific political platforms. This is not to say that Dylan does not have political leanings; it is to say that Dylan does not put much stock in the ability of politics to solve humanity’s problems. As he told Kurt Loder in a Rolling Stone interview in 1984, “I think politics is an instrument of the Devil. Just that clear. I think politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive. Politics is corrupt; I mean, anybody knows that.”[43]

In a recent monograph titled The Political World of Bob Dylan, Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson present the case that Bob Dylan’s political stance is best characterized by the term “Christian anarchism.”[44] Their case rests upon an analysis of Dylan’s political statements in songs, stage raps, and interviews, brought into conversation with H. Richard Niebuhr’s influential book, Christ and Culture.[45] Taylor and Israelson argue that Dylan’s politics were always more expansive than those of the New Left during the 1960s. Over the decades, Dylan advanced socio-political ideas that resonated with both the political left and right, encompassing both traditional and populist views. Taylor and Israelson argue that within this mix the term “anarchism,” understood broadly as a distrust of and lack of confidence in political authorities to address the human condition, always fit Dylan. With Dylan’s conversion in 1978, his anarchism melded with a stream of Christian political thought that fit one of Niebuhr’s categories of the relationship between church and state, Christ versus culture. This was the position of the Jesus People of the 1960s out of which emerged the Vineyard Fellowship of Dylan’s early Christian nurture. The kingdom of God had its own agenda in the unfolding of human history and it did not depend on alliances with earthly political authorities for its realization.

Of course, history is replete with failed alliances between church and state. Within the United States today, the close identification of a brand of evangelical Christianity with the so-called “Christian Right,” and with Zionistic groups politically tied to the state of Israel, shows that the Christ-versus-culture paradigm is not the only possible approach to church/state relations. At the time of Dylan’s conversion, American politics was beginning to involve Christians in politics to effect religious goals on a social level. President Jimmy Carter, whom Dylan admired and for whom Dylan once performed, identified as a “born-again” Christian, and at this time, Christian conservatives were marshaling their forces to attack the newly legalized practice of abortion. It is possible that Dylan connected with some aspect of the Christian Right upon conversion. However, Dylan was deeply influenced by Hal Lindsey’s version of premillennial dispensational eschatology. As Taylor and Israelson put it, “Dylan’s newfound Christianity was in many ways less culture-bound than the average evangelical at the time — partly because it was new and he approached the Bible with the fresh eyes of a convert. Also, he had a more-spiritual, less-politicized understanding of Bible eschatology.”[46] Lindsey’s eschatology had two things working in its favor. First, it was largely passive. It did not require much from Christians for the realization of the kingdom other than to engage in evangelism so as to hasten Christ’s return. As noted earlier, Dylan’s stage raps during the gospel tour of 1979 spoke of Christ’s return and typically included an exhortation for the audience to turn to Jesus in response. No amount of political effort would hasten the coming of the kingdom. Second, Lindsey’s eschatology was inclusive of the Jewish people. Given Dylan’s Jewishness both pre- and post-conversion, this eschatology, with its spiritualized focus on the last days, accorded well with Dylan’s predilection to distrust human political efforts as well as his focus on integrating the Jewish and Christian elements of his faith. The final reckoning that would usher in God’s age of righteousness and justice was wholly independent of political involvement. Lindsey’s eschatology enabled Dylan to integrate his newfound Christian faith with his established “anarchist” tendencies.[47]


I confess a certain disappointment at the degree to which Hal Lindsey influenced Bob Dylan’s thinking. As a New Testament scholar and an ecotheologian, I find Hal Lindsey’s exegesis and hermeneutic of reading current events through the lens of prophetic biblical passages specious, and the implications of his eschatology frankly dangerous. Yet it is evident that Hal Lindsey exerted considerable influence on Bob Dylan’s art and patterns of thinking during this period. Dylan would be but one of millions of people who found, and still find, in Lindsey’s teaching a key to navigating perilous times within a Christian framework. In the case of Bob Dylan, Lindsey’s influence has clearly endured.



Beckwith, Francis J. “Busy Being Born Again: Bob Dylan’s Christian Philosophy.” Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Thinking). Eds. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter. Pp. 145–55. Chicago/La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2006.

—. “Why Are We Worried about Bob Dylan’s Religion?” Crux, 31 July 2017. https://cruxnow.com/commentary/2017/07/31/worried-bob-dylans-religion/.

Björner, Olof. Still on the Road: 1979 First Gospel Tour. http://www.bjorner.com/DSN05060%201979%20First%20Gospel%20Tour.htm#DSN05080.

Bustraan, Richard A. The Jesus People Movement: A Story of Spiritual Revolution among the Hippies. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014.

Cott, Jonathan Cott, ed. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Gilmour, Michael J. Tangled up in the Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Heylin, Clinton. Trouble in Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years—What Really Happened. New York: Lesser Gods, 2017.

Higgins, Thomas W. “Kenn Gulliksen, John Wimber, and the Founding of the Vineyard Movement.” Pneuma, vol. 34, 2012, pp. 208–28.

Lindsey, Hal. “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?” The Hal Lindsey Report, 2 November 2017. https://www.hallindsey.com/ww-11-2-2017/.

Lindsey, Hal, with C. C. Carlson. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970.

Lofton, Kathryn. “I Don’t Want to Fake You out: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History.” Cultural Icons and Cultural Leadership. Eds. Peter Iver Kaufman and Kristin M. S. Bezio. Pp. 152–166. Cheltenham, UK/Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017.

Marshall, Scott M. Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. Washington, DC: WND Books, 2017.

Maxa, Rudy. “Bob Dylan Knocks on Heaven’s Door, Accepts Christ, Says a West Coast Pastor As the Music Biz and the Star’s Fans Await an Album To Explain It All.” Washington Post, 27 May 1979. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1979/05/27/bob-dylan-knocks-on-heavens-door-accepts-christ-says-a-west-coast-pastor-as-the-music-biz-and-the-stars-fans-await-an-album-to-explain-it-all/78a25f0a-c879-4539-81db-d4866c3f0508/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fff58eddb05a.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951, 1975.

Riordan, James. “It Ain’t Easy Being Bob: A Retrospective on Dylan on His 70th Birthday.” Maddancer, 8 July 2011. https://maddancer.wordpress.com/2011/07/.

Rogovoy, Seth. “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?” Forward, 30 October 2017. https://forward.com/culture/qa/386298/was-bob-dylan-at-his-best-when-he-was-christian/.

Soulen, R. Kendall Soulen. The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Taylor, Jeff. “Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism.” Counterpunch, 25 November 2015. https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/11/25/bob-dylan-and-christian-zionism/.

Taylor, Jeff, and Chad Israelson. The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Williams, Don. Bob Dylan: The Man, the Music, the Message. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1985.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.



Bob Dylan. “Are You Ready?” Special Rider Music. 1980. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/are-you-ready/.

—. “God Knows.” Special Rider Music. 1990. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/god-knows/.

—. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” Special Rider Music. 1979. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/gonna-change-my-way-thinking/.

—. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” Special Rider Music. 1981. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/grooms-still-waiting-altar/.

—. “Neighborhood Bully.” Special Rider Music. 1983. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/neighborhood-bully/.

—. “Precious Angel.” Special Rider Music. 1979. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/precious-angel/.

—. “Slow Train.” Special Rider Music. 1979. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/slow-train/.

—. “Things Have Changed.” Special Rider Music. 1999. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/things-have-changed/.

—. “When He Returns.” Special Rider Music. 1979. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/when-he-returns/.


[1] E.g., Rogovoy, “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?”

[2] Taylor and Isrealson, The Political World of Bob Dylan.

[3] The book was also published in 1973 by Bantam Books and again in 1977 by Zondervan. The book was also made into a motion picture narrated by Orson Welles and released in 1979.

[4] Bustraan, The Jesus People Movement, 63.

[5] Higgins, “Kenn Gulliksen, John Wimber, and the Founding of the Vineyard Movement,” 210–14.

[6] Maxa, “Bob Dylan Knocks on Heaven’s Door.”

[7] Heylin, Trouble in Mind, 23–25; Marshall, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, 34–35.

[8] Dylan recalls his compulsion to attend the School of Discipleship in Reseda, California, in an interview with Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1980, in Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, 298.

[9] Kathryn Lofton asserts that Lindsey actually taught eschatology in the Vineyard School of Discipleship, though other sources surveying this period of Dylan’s life do not mention this. See her essay, “I Don’t Want to Fake You out: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History,” 156. Heylin quotes Larry Myers as saying that Dylan studied under Kenn Gulliksen and “at least four other competent pastor-teachers, including myself,” so it is possible that Lindsey was among that number (Trouble in Mind, 28).

[10] Heylin, Trouble in Mind, 30–38.

[11] Riordan, “It Ain’t Easy Being Bob.”

[12] Rogovoy, “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?”

[13] Lindsey, “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?”

[14] E.g., Gilmour, Tangled up in the Bible.

[15] Bob Dylan, interview with John Pareles, The New York Times, 28 September 1997, in Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, 419.

[16] Beckwith, “Busy Being Born Again,” 146. Beckwith identifies four areas in which Dylan’s early philosophy is developed in his Christian work: Dylan’s assimilation of the Christian narrative; human beings live in a moral universe; the moral law is objectively true; and it is important that human beings practice virtue.

[17] Dylan, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

[18] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 109–13.

[19] Dylan, “Are You Ready?”

[20] “When You Gonna Wake Up,” typescript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, The Bob Dylan Archive, box 80, folder 02. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK. Spelling and punctuation retained from the original in all references to archival materials.

[21] Dylan, “When He Returns.”

[22] In some alternate lyrics from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” Dylan expresses a similar sentiment regarding the place of communists and capitalists in the end time drama: “the communists were falling—the capitalists were crawling/the hand of God is moving—Jesus is calling” (“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter,” typescript lyrics from Shot of Love, circa 1981, The Bob Dylan Archive, box 81, folder 01. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK).

[23] “When He Returns,” typescript and manuscript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, box 80, folder 01. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.

[24] “Trouble in Mind,” typescript and manuscript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, box 79, folder 06. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK. 

[25] Dylan, “Slow Train.”

[26] Dylan, “Precious Angel.”

[27] “Precious Angel,” typescript and manuscript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, box 79, folder 08. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.

[28] Dylan, “Neighborhood Bully.”

[29] “Neighborhood Bully,” manuscript and typescript lyrics from Infidels, circa 1983, box 35, folder 06. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.

[30] Dylan, “God Knows.”

[31] Dylan, “Things Have Changed.”

[32] Björner, Still on the Road. Olaf Björner’s website contains the texts of Dylan’s stage rants during the 1979 Gospel Tour. Clinton Heylin also provides several sample rants in Trouble in Mind, Appendix II.

[33] Björner, Still on the Road.

[34] Björner, Still on the Road.

[35] Bob Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 21 June 1984, in Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, 306. Italics original.

[36] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 308–9. Italics original.

[37] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 310.

[38] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 311. Italics original.

[39] Williams, Bob Dylan: The Man, the Music, the Message.

[40] Lofton, “I Don’t Want to Fake You out,” 152–66.

[41] Beckwith, “Why Are We Worried about Bob Dylan’s Religion?”

[42] For a survey of positions on the relationship between Israel and the Christian church, see Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology.

[43] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 309.

[44] Taylor and Israelson, The Political World of Bob Dylan, 151–72, 194–99. The following summarizes these discussions. See also Taylor, “Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism.”

[45] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.

[46] Taylor and Israelson, The Political World of Bob Dylan, 222.

[47] Taylor and Israelson, The Political World of Bob Dylan, 158–59.

Bob Dylan and Wallace Stevens in Conversation

ARTICLE BY Jim Salvucci, Independent Scholar

Abstract: Bob Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” and Wallace Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” both composed in their authors’ septuagenarian years, engage in an intertextual conversation about the end of life. That both are evidently set in Florida as they contemplate the distant horizon adds to the intimacy of their conversation and invokes the range of Stevens’ Florida poems, which Dylan’s song extends thematically. Dylan’s speculation about the liminal moment of death centers on immortality and equanimity and thus is more reassuring than Stevens’ conception, which is more abstract and terminal even as it holds out hope for a renewal. Both authors emphasize the profound ambiguity of liminal death as one approaches the unequivocal finale of life and its potential beyond.

Keywords: Dylan, Bob; Stevens, Wallace; “Key West (Philosopher Pirate); Rough and Rowdy Ways; “The Idea of Order at Key West”; “Of Mere Being”; death; dying; afterlife; immortality; legacy; horizon; Key West; Florida; Florida poems; flowers; intertext


Not all great poets—like Wallace Stevens—are great singers, but a great singer—like Billie Holiday—is always a great poet.

Bob Dylan (qtd. in Marcus par. 48)


A student of literature as well as Americana, Bob Dylan has long known of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, as the epigraph above establishes. The quotation appears in critic Greil Marcus’ famous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s album Self Portrait, but Marcus supplies no other pedigree for the statement than that Dylan said it “a year ago,” which would date it as 1969 (par. 48). While Dylan has always been a magpie of sorts, absorbing the words of others and fashioning them into his own original works, I am not aware of Stevens’ poetry appearing in Dylan’s songs or other writings—with one possible exception. In 2001’s “Po’ Boy,” Dylan sings punny lines that appear in the authorized lyrics on Bob Dylan as

Poor boy, sitting in the gloom 

Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room.’

In contrast, unofficial online transcriptions commonly reproduce that first line as, 

Po’ boy, in the hotel they call the Palace of Gloom. (For instance, Dylan, “Po’ Boy Lyrics”) 

That transcription notwithstanding, I find it impossible not to hear Dylan sing, 

Po’ boy, in the hotel they call the ‘Palaz of Hoon.’

In my hearing, the line is an aural allusion to the Stevens poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which a solipsistic Sol sets at the end of the day, much like the ever-sinking Po’ Boy who never seems to catch a break. Whether Dylan sings “Palace of Gloom” or “Palaz of Hoon,” one thing we can be sure he does not sing, thankfully, is “sitting in the gloom.” Although this allusion is a rare and speculative instance of Dylan using Stevens’ language in his writing, we can find a confluence of ideas elsewhere. For instance, in “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan writes, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” an intertextual variation of Stevens’ famous line in “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty.” More broadly, this song and the poem address similar themes regarding the inevitability of darkness. A more extensive intertextual conversation takes place between Dylan’s song “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” from his album Rowdy and Rowdy Ways (released 2020) and Stevens’ poem “Of Mere Being” (first published posthumously in 1967). Of all Dylan’s songbook, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is his most Stevens-esque lyric, with its Florida locale, its catalog of flower imagery, its horizonal perspective, and its sense of movement within stability. The conversation between the two works revolves around their shared geographical setting and thematic focus even though they express a divergent perspective on life, death, and what lies in between.

The album Rough and Rowdy Ways features a thematic thread that contemplates the prospects and consequences of a long life and, importantly, the process of aging. This theme narrows to a progression in the final three numbers, which Richard Thomas deems “the closing epic triad of the album,” starting with “Crossing the Rubicon,” the album’s eighth song (55). “Crossing the Rubicon” explores the steady march of choice and consequence that constitutes life itself and amounts to little more than a series of metaphorical Rubicon crossings, the most significant being the very first—the traversing of the birth canal. Fate is set at that moment, and nothing can stand between that birth and its ineluctable conclusion—death—a sentiment Dylan articulates in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” as, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Similarly, in “Huck’s Tune,” Dylan equates all of life as a form of death (“In this version of death called life”), making life itself the only Rubicon that matters in the end. The first song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, “I Contain Multitudes” is even more direct regarding the transience of life: “The flowers are dying like all things do.” This focus on life and death prevails as Rough and Rowdy Ways closes with “Murder Most Foul,” a saga of life’s conclusion. Its repercussions occur as an otherworldly perusal of the aftermath of death and a supernatural address from the afterlife or, perhaps, a plea to the afterlife. We witness the assassination of John F. Kennedy, some details that surround it (including hints of conspiracy theories), and finally its ethereal aftereffect: a litany of musical requests to a celestial “Mr. Wolfman Jack.” 

Unfolding between these two narratives, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” envisions the passage from life toward the approaching end. As a song about the nebulous, liminal space before death, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” recalls the horizonal theme of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Of Mere Being,” composed shortly before his death in 1955 and possibly his last poem.[1] The composition of each work occurs late in the authors’ lives (though precisely how late in Dylan’s life has yet to be determined), with the song and the poem conducting a literary conversation regarding the end of life while also sharing similarities of setting, content, and even form. For instance, Dylan’s song explicitly and Stevens’ poem evidently are set in the tropics of southern Florida with its perpetual warmth and never-fading flora. “Winter here is an unknown thing,” as Dylan sings.[2] For Stevens the region is, in Helen Vendler’s phrase, “the realm of the sun” (41), a symbol of the life cycle and a topos most pertinent in the context of works envisioning the sunset of life in “the land of light,” as Dylan would have it. Similarly, Eleanor Cook avers that “Florida released something in Stevens” (Poetry, 67). The ostensible Florida setting of the two works contributes a geographical definiteness to life’s ultimate certainty even as both works emphasize ambiguity in the advance toward that certainty. However similar in this regard, though, the poem and the song draw different ideological conclusions regarding the conditions of our terminal state.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of Florida to Stevens and in his writing. Florida imagery pervades his poetry, with critics grouping a subset of his works as his “Florida poems.” Some, like “Of Mere Being,” do not expressly invoke Florida but still turn to the imagery of the tropics. For instance, as Karl Precoda notes in his perceptive article “The Noble Rider on the Terminal Beach,” one section of “The Comedian as the Letter C” is labeled “Approaching Carolina,” but it “is recognizably Floridian in its details” (8). Whatever the precise setting, “Comedian” is a poetic narrative of voyage, discovery, and landing that, as Cook observes in A Reader’s Guide, “allegorizes his partial literary biography as the physical and mental journey of Crispin,” the main character and Stevensian persona of the poem (46-7). In fact, we can see the Florida poems’ setting and imagery as a sort of crude plan for a continuous journey through the experience of life as in “Farewell to Florida,” where Stevens’ departure is akin to death or a permanent transformation like a snake that “has left its skin upon the floor.” Also, as with “Comedian” and other Florida poems, “Farewell” is full of sea imagery and the trope of a movement or a voyage, launched with the hail, “Go on, high ship.” In the early poem “Fabliau of Florida,” another voyage is enacted without movement as a boat, “Barque of phosphor,” lies still “on the palmy beach.” Stevens commands it to sail toward the nighttime horizon, but the only actual motion is the surf with its perpetual “droning,” which mimics the constancy (and tedium) of the life journey. He also evokes this language and imagery in “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night” where the “droning sibilants” of the “sea-sounds” resolves into the serene and intimate beauty of a nighttime “serenade.” The sounds here and throughout the Florida poems are a recurring part of the life experience as they “come to dominate the music of Stevens’ lines” (Precoda, 7). In “Indian River,” the sound is not a drone but a “jingle” that rings steadily all over Florida, mixing the human-made (“rings in the nets”) with the natural (“jingle of the water”). In “Primordia,” a self-pastiche of a poem that embeds the entirety of “Indian River” as its ninth section, Stevens depicts the “voice of the wind” as a continental sound, linking the Florida peninsula with the rest of the American landmass, but it is sound and the movement of air, not solid dirt and rock, that bounds and delineates the continent.[3] Cook counts these Stevens poems, along with several other Florida poems, among the “fluency poems” that work “with the concept and trope of flowing and fluency” (Poetry, 39). Time and again throughout Stevens’ Florida poems, we witness the association of sound and movement with the land, as though the land flows like water, as in “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Infanta Marina.” We also feel the sense that even the land is not solid but is a phantom on the horizon. Thus the land itself is the movement of a journey, the journey of mind and geography that Crispin and Stevens take, which are among the tropes that Cook identifies in “Comedian” (Poetry, 77-8). This same conceit plays a significant role in Stevens’ final Florida poem, “Of Mere Being,” and in Dylan’s only Florida song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” both of which dwell on the liminal state of terminal transition, on fluency within stability.

I refer here to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” as Dylan’s sole Florida song, but a number of Dylan’s songs mention Florida or Florida locales. For instance, “Po’ Boy” evokes Florida as a potential escape from “them Georgia laws” (and is thus less a Florida song than a Georgia song, if that). Some Florida cities surface in passing in Dylan songs, such as Miami in “Caribbean Wind” or Tallahassee in “Got My Mind Made Up” (co-written with native Floridian Tom Petty), a city that also appears among the litany of place names that is “Wanted Man.” To be sure, Dylan’s association with Florida extends beyond individual songs and recordings. For instance, Dylan recorded Time out of Mind in Miami, but none of the album’s songs explicitly evokes that city or its state. More tantalizing is “Florida Key,” a handwritten Dylan lyric sheet from the Basement Tapes sessions that musician Taylor Goldsmith set to music and performed on 2014’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. While the lyric is situated in Florida and is a plaintive expression of love and longing, Dylan neither finished nor performed it, nor does it appear on the list of songs on his authorized website, Bob Dylan. As such, it is hard to qualify the abandoned lyric sheet “Florida Key” as a Dylan song with the same definitiveness that, say, “Of Mere Being” is a Stevens poem. Unless and until Dylan composes another, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” remains the only Dylan song that approaches the spirit and depth of Floridianess present in Stevens’ Florida poems.

The major theme of Dylan’s “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)” is the mediation of the condition of life and the condition of death—the instant just before or of death itself—within the journey of life that is Rough and Rowdy Ways. The outcome is not equivocal, but this liminal state is itself marked by vagueness. It is a moment within a transition, a suspension that offers the possibility of reflection. Much like the “horizon line,” which the song references twice, this state is not physically fixed as its position is always relative to the perceiver, like a boat at rest on the water, still and not still, an echo of the tropes of several Stevensian Florida poems. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is, after all, a sea song, and Dylan knows the sea, having sailed the Caribbean extensively on his schooner, the Water Pearl, with his family for ten years “from Martinique to Barbados” (Chronicles 163), adventures that manifest in the horizonal perspective and the movement of the song.[4] As with the horizon, the liminal state the song evokes can never be visited as a destination nor fully experienced and yet is always perceivably there, certain and inescapable. Meanwhile, this condition, though ostensibly static, roils with tension and pressure, pulling and pushing—a boat adrift. Like Dylan’s sailboat, the land mass of Key West is only deceptively permanent, an impermanence reinforced by the fact that Dylan’s boat sank in a storm (Chronicles 163). Furthermore, Precoda offers the historical detail that even in Stevens’ day, much of the land of Key West had been claimed and reclaimed by ongoing dredging (9) and that the island was largely a mass of “shifting sands” (10), much like the horizon itself—there and not there—and in theoretical danger of disappearing altogether like the island resort in Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.” In “Farewell to Florida,” almost foreshadowing the fate of Dylan’s schooner, Stevens describes this very instability—“Key West sank downward under massive clouds”—exemplifying the fluidity amidst seeming solidity we see throughout the Florida poems and in Dylan’s Florida song.

The lyrics of Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” present a first-person narrative of a man who himself is at sea and is best understood as at once literally Dylan and not. After all, while many lines and the song itself resonate as Dylan’s bona fide personal reminiscences and musings, so far as I am aware, no biographer has ever uncovered an instance when a preteen Bobby Zimmerman was made to marry a sex worker as the narrator of the song asserts: 

Twelve years old and they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story but not where it ends
She’s still cute and we’re still friends
Down in the bottom – way down in Key West

This narrative is provocative and has generated much speculation. For instance, numerous online commentators have, offering scant evidence, construed this particular vignette as a sardonic reference to Robert Allen Zimmerman’s bar mitzvah, but as David B. Green notes in Haaretz, that ceremony took place on 22 May 1954 (par. 1), merely two days before the future Bob Dylan turned thirteen, the normal age for a Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah. While he was still twelve at the time of the ceremony, the two-day age differential remains more technical than consequential, and it seems unlikely that Dylan would further obscure what would only rate as an opaque reference to his own bar mitzvah with such artifice. More pertinently, in the very next verse, Dylan references “Pretty Little Miss,” a 2011 Patty Loveless song that features a young girl who is looking forward to marrying at age twelve but is jilted by her would-be groom. Thematically and structurally, Loveless’ song is quite different from Dylan’s, but they share the topical kinship of preteen marriage. Alternatively, the reference could be to an identically titled traditional bluegrass song, also with a theme of impending marriage, although the ages of the bride and groom in that song are never established and are evidently considerably older than twelve.

As with the sequence on young marriage and many of the song’s lyrics, the opening lines of Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” are disconcerting. Why start with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at all, and how could the narrator have “[h]eard it on the wireless radio,” which was still in its developmental infancy at the time McKinley’s death? Could Dylan be guilty of a careless anachronism? Many others have noted that the first line of Dylan’s song (“McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled”) quotes the opening line of “White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, first recorded in 1926 (for instance, Thomas 63). Poole’s song cleverly tells the story not of McKinley’s life and assassination but of his final days lingering with the fatal consequences of two bullet wounds. Thus, when Dylan’s narrator states, “I heard all about it – he was going down slow / Heard it on the wireless radio,” he is not referring to the breaking news of McKinley’s murder but to hearing the song “White House Blues” itself playing on the radio. While listening to the radio in his youth back in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan would most likely have heard the 1959 version of “White House Blues,” by the New Lost City Ramblers, which has a different opening line and “updates” the lyrics to the Hoover-Roosevelt transition period.

Another curious reference is the use of the word “pirate,” which occurs most prominently in the title as well as in the phrase “pirate radio station.” The affiliation of pirates and Key West is both historical and contemporary. A simple internet search will reveal much pirate activity in and around Key West dating back to the sixteenth century. One may also uncover an extensive list of present-day pirate-themed businesses and venues along with indications of the island’s more recent use as a smuggler’s base. Additionally, in “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” Jimmy Buffett, a songwriter long associated with Key West, portrays the melancholy reflections of a modern-day drug runner as he enters middle age—a theme in line with that of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Dylan, an admirer of Buffett, performed “A Pirate Looks at Forty” with Joan Baez in 1982 (Greene par. 5), and Buffet arguably makes another appearance in Dylan’s song as “Jimmy” in a litany of individuals who were “born on the wrong side of the railroad track.” The title also calls to mind the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera (1928), which Dylan discusses at length in Chronicles, Volume One, describing its great influence over him when he was first learning to write songs (272-6). The Weill-Brecht song is from the point of view of Jenny, a former prostitute (ostensibly unmarried and decidedly not “still cute”) and housekeeper who fantasizes about wreaking revenge on all those who look down upon her. In Jenny’s reverie, a dark pirate ship launches an assault from the harbor to rescue her from misery and to exact vengeance as the invading pirates defer to her leadership to decide the fates of the survivors. In Chronicles, Dylan refers to the song’s “ghost chorus” (275) with “[b]ig medicine in the lyrics” (274), so in this way, her musings make her a sort of metaphysician pirate if not a philosopher pirate. Still, “Pirate Jenny” is an intense and disturbing song in both music and lyric. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” by contrast, though exhibiting its own lyrical potency, has the melodic movement of a lullaby cum sea shanty (see Hartman 8).

So how is Dylan’s titular pirate a “Philosopher Pirate?” Instead of attempting to further unspool the Gordian knot of allusions in the song, a focus on the thematic conversation between it and “Of Mere Being” by Wallace Stevens, a poet renowned for his philosophical rumination, may offer insights. After all, according to Thomas, intertextuality is “a hallmark of Dylan’s song composition since the 1990s” (42). Indeed, the conversation between these two works, along with several of Stevens’ Florida poems considers both the philosophical and metaphysical dimensions of mortality.

Dylan’s Key West is as much an aspirational horizon point as it is a physical island, a geographically fixed reality, even though we know that it is largely a mass of reclaimed sand. The Key West setting recalls numerous poems by Stevens, most obviously “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which, like “Of Mere Being” and so many other of Stevens’ poems, resists definitive interpretation as it flows through meaning(s). Similarly, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” refuses to settle, its fragmented narrative consisting of a series of observations of experiences on the island of Key West, including the sights, locations, and people associated with the island, literally or figuratively, all of which connect with concepts the songwriter wishes to express. In effect, this narrative functions as a fictional or representational life review. Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” also educes memory (genuine, enhanced, or fabricated) as it revolves around the notion of trying to snatch settled order from fluidity much as Stevens’ reader attempts to snatch settled meaning from his poetry. Precoda observes Stevens’ inclination to associate the fixed with longitudinal movement in that “Stevens reads landscape like a book, stressing the temporality of the act of perception” (14). In “The Idea of Order,” on a beach at sunset, a siren-like singer draws the poet’s attention. For Cook, Hoon is a “forerunner of the singer,” which makes sense as both mark the end of day (Poetry 133). In “Idea of Order,” the singer’s voice mimics the sea in the listener’s mind, and he muses about meaning, meaninglessness, agency, and creation. In the closing stanzas, Stevens notes the human imperative to impose order on a chaotic world and conveys a sense of loss in this process. 

While Key West and Florida are featured throughout Stevens’ works, there is a particular emphasis on the flora of the state with extensive references to Florida and Florida-adjacent terms, which Cook documents as “‘Floréal,’ ‘florid,’ ‘flora,’ ‘flor-abundant,’ and so on” (Poetry 71-2). Similarly, Dylan’s Florida song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” itself features flowers and plants throughout, which are not typically prominent subjects in his other lyrics. In this floral context, two of Stevens’ Florida poems warrant closer scrutiny. The first is “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,” a contemplation of ennui, a recurrent Stevensian topic. In the poem, the poet notes the languidness of a sultry day, presumably in Florida. At the end of the poem, the sight of a vivid hibiscus bloom shocks the poet from his torpor as its brilliance contrasts with the climatic indolence. The poem is as much about a mental awakening as a sensual awakening with a “monstered moth” lingering over the garish flower “all the stupid afternoon.” In contrast, and characteristically, Dylan’s song does not treat his hibiscus so analytically: “Hibiscus flowers, they grow everywhere here / If you wear one, put it behind your ear.” Still, like the hibiscus in Stevens’ poem, the lines are sensual and provocative particularly since wearing a flower behind the ear is unhelpfully supposed to signal either that a female is available or that she is taken. The flower reference thus stands as an instance of Dylanesque ambiguity and dissonance that augments the song’s presentation of a liminal state of being.

Another Stevens poem, “O, Florida, Venereal Soil,” includes the lines, “In the porches of Key West, / Behind the bougainvilleas.” This poem, too, references the ennui of the tropical clime, which at night gives way to its own form of sensuality, a libidinous restiveness. In the last stanza, he calls out: 

Donna, donna, dark,

Stooping in indigo gown

And cloudy constellations,

Conceal yourself or disclose

Fewest things to the lover —

“Donna donna” here is as much a woman as it is the flowering belladonna, a poisonous plant employed medicinally as, among other things, an anesthetic, a sedative, or an aphrodisiac, which reinforces Stevens’ titular use of “venereal” in its every sense (Cook, Poetry 69). The diminutive and “stooping” indigo/purple flowers of the belladonna are native to Eurasia but grow widely in Florida as an invasive species. The closing line of the poem depicts the flower, referencing a variation of belladonna’s alternate moniker, “nightshade”: “A pungent bloom against your shade.” Dylan’s song references both flowering plants in separate lines: “Bougainvillea blooming in the summer, in the spring,” and a more indirect image of the belladonna: “The tiny blossoms of a toxic plant / They can make you dizzy.”[5]  These floral images subtly echo the ennui, sensuality, and eroticism of Stevens’ lines. 

I am not suggesting that the coincidence of these floral images are Dylan’s intentional allusions to Stevens’ poetry. It is clear, though, that the poet and songwriter have, at the very least, compatible visions of Key West, and that these visions inform a literary conversation across generations and genres. As noted, Stevens has infused his poetry with flowers throughout his career, often in a Floridian context, while Dylan seeds “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” with plants and flowers, sometimes cryptically. For instance, Dylan’s lines, “The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees / They can give you the bleedin’ heart disease,” allude to three Florida plants in a slightly disguised presentation: fishtail palms, orchids (a flowering plant, not a tree), and bleeding heart flowers, none of which feature prominently in Stevens’ poetry, just as none of the flora in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” has ever appeared in any previous Dylan lyric.

While itself devoid of flower imagery and introducing only a lone palm, Stevens’ “Of Mere Being” presents a stripped-down philosophical vision even more compatible with that of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Like “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,” it is not explicitly set in Key West or Florida or anywhere else in particular; although, with its phantasmagoric image of an exotic bird in a distant palm tree, the poem does evoke that setting. “Of Mere Being” educes the space between departure and arrival, or as B.J Leggett speculates, it “may be thought of as a poem about after leaving or beyond leaving” (139). The opening lines present a golden bird in a palm rising in the distance “in the bronze decor,” which evokes the sunset as one approaches the horizon, an image Dylan separately resurrects as a “Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence” in his 1975 song “You’re a Big Girl Now.”[6] Given that Stevens composed the poem late in life and likely while ailing, it stands to reason that mortality colors or at least tints the poem’s theme. The poem opens with an image: “The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought.” Later, “The palm stands on the edge of space.” Thus, the palm is an object that comes into view after the “last thought” but just before or at the end, a terminus on the horizon and a vision of an oasis with accompanying mirage. “Palm” in the first line bears an aural similarity to the word “poem,” thus insinuating the poem “at the end of the mind,” which anticipates Dylan’s wordplay with “fishtail ponds” vs. fishtail palms. The language of the poem’s final line echoes the alliteration and imagery of the last line of “Nomad Exquisite,” a fellow Florida poem that ends “Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.” In “Of Mere Being’s” final image, “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” eliciting a vision of the phoenix aflame and destined to rise from its own ashes but not rising yet. It is, thus, a poem that addresses the end of life. Jennifer Bates notes the weightiness of this image: “Instead of upward swords of flame, the colors in the fire-fangled feathers are drawn downward, as though even the flames of fire—whose nature, according to Aristotle, is to go up—could not escape the pull” (159-60). Tim Armstrong recognizes the poem as articulating a “sense not only of Stevens’ work, but also of his life-cycle, and particularly the moment of death itself” (43). 

But it also is a poem of renewal, transition, and even hope, and like “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” it is a pause for reflection in the midst of that transition, which Cook perceives as a “transmutation” (Poetry 312). In this and in the image of the wind that “moves slowly in the branches,” the trope of fluidity that pervades the other Florida poems operates in “Of Mere Being.” The poem announces a belief in the cyclical nature of life but certainly not literal reincarnation or rebirth. As Cook puts it, “The poem is of mortality yet with a sense of immortality, though not personal immortality. It is a kind of will and testament of song” (Poetry 312). The poem gestures toward the perpetual regeneration of the poet through his poems that metaphorically live on after him—thus, “The [poem] at the end of the mind.” Brayton Polka conjectures but does not insist that in “Of Mere Being,” “the artificial bird is the poem, it sings the poem, it makes the poem” (54). Cook sees a complex pun linking the palm and the bird, and she also affiliates the palm’s leaves with the poem’s words (Poetry 312). Whether the palm is the poem or the bird is the poem is immaterial to my reading of the distant object representing the potential of Stevens’ artistic/intellectual legacy. As Bates puts it, “[o]nce risen, the palm, bird, or poem as a whole are in a sense absurd” (161). Leggett observes that “[t]he poem attempts to posit a conception of being that is sundered absolutely from the human mind and thus necessarily survives ‘the end of the mind’ in death” (141) although, like Stevens, he does not venture to suppose what that state of mind may be with any precision. 

Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” as a nonliteral life review, contains much more narrative than “Of Mere Being,” but it is more a chronicle of a state of being or states of being than a coherent, linear story. Dylan’s island of Key West is both distant and near, like “that pirate radio signal,” which communicates with the local listener from its exotic origin “out of Luxembourg and Budapest” and is at once present and not present, an ethereal sound that, distorted by atmospherics, can tease and evade the would-be listener. Similarly, Stevens’ golden bird sings a “foreign song,” audible but beyond the listener’s understanding, even as it manifests within the familiar setting of a palm tree in the breeze.

As we already saw, the song is more narrative than the poem and starts sharply in medias res with an impending death, the immediate aftermath of the attack on McKinley, which will echo as Kennedy’s assassination in “Murder Most Foul.” The last verse before the final chorus brings us back to the theme of death as the singer reports that he “heard your last request.” The chorus then antithetically offers, for the second time in the song, the promise of eternal life in heaven:

Key West is the place to be

If you’re lookin’ for immortality

Key West is paradise divine

Given the association of Florida and environs with the legend of the Fountain of Youth, it is only appropriate that Key West would be the source of perpetual life, but Dylan’s Key West offers immortality of a different sort, as a “paradise divine,” not an earthly eternity. Dylan makes a similar promise of an afterlife in his other great horizon song, “Beyond the Horizon”: “Beyond the horizon, behind the sun / At the end of the rainbow life has only begun.” The first and last choruses of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” conclude that “Key West is on the horizon line,” which, like Steven’s palm, is forever on the “edge of space” and, in fact, definitionally demarcates the optical separation of the sea from space, which is visible to us on Earth as the sky. The horizon line, where we can locate Key West, is an illusion, the image of a seemingly set and accessible location that is neither set nor accessible at all since its position is entirely relative to the inherently mobile viewer. There can be no mappable geographical coordinates to define the horizon line. Dylan’s Key West, like Stevens’ “gold-feathered bird” that sings in the palm “without human meaning, / Without human feeling” is phantasmal, “the enchanted land”—visible on the edge of perception but intangible and alien, fluidly there and not there.

The musical performance of the song generates a similar tension. As Christopher Ricks has observed in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, the most pronounced distinction between song and poetry is the performative aspect of the former, which can illuminate and subvert the lyrical text (14-5). In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” understated and lurking in the background, the instruments propel the song and hold it back at the same time, enacting the fluidity of the lyrics. At moments, a guitar strains, perhaps with the help of a tremolo bar, pushing the music almost out of key before dragging it back again. (This effect is most notable immediately after the line, “I play the gumbo limbo spiritual.”) The result is beautifully subtle but unmistakable once you take note of it. The ever-present accordion, the number’s “signature sound” (Hartman 8), plays throughout in counterpoint, which further increases the pleasant tautness while providing “a delightful aquarelle tone” (Grafe and McKeown 223). Meanwhile each line of the melody rises and then falls, like a boat at sea riding swells—a movement of music and of feeling.[7] Since it is a long song, the total effect is lulling and ultimately mesmerizing as the movement of the music lingers just on the edge of consciousness, “the edge of space.” In this way, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” shares much with the mellifluous aural experience of Stevens’ Florida work.

Appropriately, while both of these works are about ending or at least visualizing the end, they are full of false endings—primarily performative, in the case of Dylan’s song, and primarily structural, in the case of Stevens’ poem. In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Dylan sings the chorus four times in four different versions. The first three choruses are followed by a rest before the instruments pick up the next verse, thus creating a false ending to the song after each of these three choruses. Ironically, the final chorus is the only one not followed by a rest or false ending but is followed immediately by an instrumental fadeout, the true ending of the song. Similarly, Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” while not primarily a performative work, induces a sense of ending over and over in the last two of its four stanzas by presenting six sentences splayed paratactically across a mere six lines. If not for the fact that one can see more words remaining on the page, some of these sentences could feel terminal, thus falsely giving the impression that each is an ending. When the poem is read aloud, which is the only mode of performance available to poetry as poetry, this effect is particularly pronounced, an illusion that is only enhanced if the reader exaggerates the pauses at the periods. Stevens’ use of paratactic sentences in the final two stanzas stands in radical contrast to the first two stanzas, which consist of one continuous sentence, or, as it is, two independent clauses joined by a comma after the first stanza. The first two stanzas/independent clauses, thus, are linked as a single thought or image, an artificial continuation, which is the opposite of a false ending. The abundant false endings in both these works project a sense of incompleteness, which Bates also detects in Stevens’ images (103), and evoke the thematic sense of conclusion followed by new or renewed beginning. For Dylan this new beginning is in “the land of light,” which Thomas sees as offering “a brighter glimpse of the afterlife” than that of “Murder Most Foul” (60). For Stevens, the new beginning is something even more evocatively figurative and discomfiting (the phoenix in flames). Quoting a phrase from Stevens’ “The Poems of Our Climate,” Bates argues that “Of Mere Being” “is apocalyptic in that it uncovers and celebrates how imperfection, properly understood, is complete: the poem expresses Stevens’ view that ‘The imperfect is our paradise’” (163). In this way, Dylan’s song and Stevens’ poem are equally sanguine regarding the state of death.

In their philosophical conversation about the end, these two works, the song and the poem, present the authors’ visions of the tentative and liminal instant at the end of life, the moment when the dying can perceive the end but not quite reach it. It is, on the one hand, a place of serenity where, as Dylan opines, “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there.” To reach the “horizon line,” a physical impossibility, is to live eternally in equanimity. On the other hand, for Stevens, this liminal instant is a moment of immolation, annihilation, and triumphant revitalization, not literally, but as a representative new beginning, perhaps as a creature of renown without consciousness. Although reaching “the edge of space” is a logical impossibility since pure space contains all matter and has no edges, to do so figuratively is to live on in seemingly violent cycles of memory and repute—as a phoenix of eternal renown. For both authors, the moment portrayed is a mediation of striving and holding back, and their depictions of that state are neither comforting nor dismaying. They are, like the horizon itself, the mere end, just there in the inchoate distance, reliably and forever. As “Of Mere Being” is Stevens’ final Florida poem, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is Dylan’s only Florida song and, in terms of subject, imagery, form, and spirit, extends the scope and propels the thematic reach of Stevens’ Florida poems into the genre of song and into the twenty-first century.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Tim. “Stevens’ ‘Last Poem’ Again.” The Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, 1988, pp. 35-43, wallacestevens.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Vol.-12-No.-1-Spring-1988. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Bates, Jennifer. “Stevens, Hegel, and the Palm at the End of the Mind.” The Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 23, no. 2, 1999, pp. 152-166, wallacestevens.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Vol.-23-No.-2-Fall-1999.pdf. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Bob Dylan. Sony Music Entertainment, www.bobdylan.com. Accessed 16 June 2021.

Brecht, Bertolt, and Kurt Weill. “Pirate Jenny.” The Threepenny Opera, Grove, 1994.

Brinkley, Douglas. “Bob Dylan Has a Lot on His Mind.” The New York Times, 12 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/arts/music/bob-dylan-rough-and-rowdy-ways.html?smid=em-share. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Cook, Eleanor. A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton UP, 2007.

—. Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Princeton UP, 1988. 

Dylan, Bob. “Beyond the Horizon.” Modern Times, Columbia Records, 2006.

—. “Black Diamond Bay.” Desire, Columbia Records, 1976.

—. “Caribbean Wind.” Biograph, Columbia Records, 1985.

—. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon and Schuster, 2004.

—. “Crossing the Rubicon.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Got My Mind Made Up.” Knocked out Loaded, Columbia Records, 1986.

—. “Huck’s Tune.” The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased, 1989-2006, Columbia Records, 2008.

—. “I Contain Multitudes.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Idiot Wind.” Blood on the Tracks, Columbia Records, 1975.

—. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965.

—. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Murder Most Foul.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Not Dark Yet.” Time out of Mind, Columbia Records, 1997.

—. “Po’ Boy.” Bob Dylan. www.bobdylan.com/songs/po-boy/. Accessed 16 June 2021.

—. “Po’ Boy.” Love and Theft.” Columbia Records, 2001.

—. “Po’ Boy Lyrics.” Genius. genius.com/Bob-dylan-po-boy-lyrics. Accessed 9 May 2021.

—. Time out of Mind. Columbia Records, 1997.

—. “Wanted Man.” Travelin’ Through, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15. Columbia Records, 2019.

—. “You’re a Big Girl Now.” Blood on the Tracks, Columbia Records, 1975.

Dylan, Bob, and Taylor Goldsmith. “Florida Key.” Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, Electromagnetic Recordings and Harvest Records, 2014.

Ginsberg, Allen. Liner Notes. Desire, Bob Dylan, Columbia Records, 1976.

Grafe, Adrian, and Andrew McKeown. “Coda: Late and Timely, Rough and Rowdy: A Review of Rough and Rowdy Ways.” 21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely, edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, and Claire Hélie, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, pp. 217-26.

Green, David B. “1954: Shabtai Zissel Is Bar Mitzvahed, and Turns out to Be Bob Dylan.” Haaretz, 21 May 2015, www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-bob-dylan-is-bar-mitzvahed-1.5364764. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Greene, Andy. “Flashback: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez Cover Jimmy Buffet in 1982.” Rolling Stone, 5 July 2016, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/flashback-bob-dylan-and-joan-baez-cover-jimmy-buffet-in-1982-229823/. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Hartman, Charles O. “Review of Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.” Dylan Review, vol. 2, no.1, 2020, cac96167-ffe5-426d-9db13c18f7b81540.filesusr.com/ugd/54ebe05b08ce8ba5904f98b7be0454a29f724f.pdf. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Louisiana State UP, 2005.

“Lily of the Valley in Florida? – Knowledgebase Question.” Garden.org, 1 Nov. 1997, The National Gardening Association, garden.org/frogs/view/2465/. Accessed 9 May 2021.

Marcus, Greil. Review of Self Portrait, by Bob Dylan. Rolling Stone, 8 June 1970, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/self-portrait-107056/. Accessed 9 May 2021.

Polka, Brayton. “The Image’s Truth: Wallace Stevens and the Hermeneutics of Being.” On Interpretation: Studies in Culture, Law, and the Sacred, edited by Andrew D. Weiner and Leonard V. Kaplan, series Graven Images 5, U of Wisconsin P, 2002, pp. 38-67.

Precoda, Karl. “The Noble Rider on the Terminal Beach.” The Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 1994, pp. 6-18, wallacestevens.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Vol.-18-No.-1-Spring-1994.pdf. Accessed 16 May 2021.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ecco-Harper, 2005.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson, The Library of America, 1997.

—. “Fabliau of Florida.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 18.

—. “Farewell to Florida.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 97-8.

—. “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 18.

—. “Indian River.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 93.

—. “Infanta Marina.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 6.

—. “Nomad Exquisite.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 77.

—. “O, Florida, Venereal Soil.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 38-9.

—. “Of Mere Being.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 476-7.

—. “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 72-4.

—. “Primordia.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 534-7.

—. “Sunday Morning.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 53-6.

—. “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 51.

—. “The Comedian as the Letter C.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 22-37.

—. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 105-6.

—. “The Load of Sugar-Cane.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 10.

—. “The Poems of Our Climate.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 178-80.

—. “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 69-70.

Tenschert, Laura. “Songs from the Threshold.” Definitely Dylan, Episode 11, 25 March 2018, www.definitelydylan.com/listen/2018/3/25/episode-11-songs-from-the-threshold. Accessed 24 May 2021.

Thomas, Richard F. “‘And I Crossed the Rubicon’: Another Classical Dylan.” Dylan Review, vol. 2, no.1, 2020, cac96167-ffe5-426d-9db1-3c18f7b81540.filesusr.com/ugd/54ebe0_ 3b9ea1479f9b4b0cafaa209551dd5257.pdf. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Vendler, Helen. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire. Harvard UP and U of Tennessee P, 1984.


[1] Tim Armstrong discusses at length the “delicate” question of this poem being Stevens’ last in “Stevens’ ‘Last Poem’ Again.” For my comparison, it is only necessary that the reader recognize the poem’s having been composed toward the end of Stevens’ life as his health was failing, according to Eleanor Cook (A Reader’s Guide 314), and the thematic implications of that timing with regard to Dylan’s own later work. On liminality generally in Dylan’s songs, see Tenschert.

[2] In his poem “Indian River,” Stevens similarly declares, “Yet there is no spring in Florida.”

[3] Dylan, likely unconsciously, replicates this airy conceit in a couplet Allen Ginsberg deems the “national rhyme” of “Idiot Wind”: “blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the capitol.”

[4] Douglas Brinkley, in the introduction to his 2020 interview with Bob Dylan, envisions the lyrics more terrestrially as “an ethereal meditation on immortality set on a drive down Route 1 to the Florida Keys” (par. 5), perhaps with particular reference to the line, “Stay on the road – follow the highway sign” from the first chorus, the only lyrical indication that the song may approach the Keys via a land route.

[5] Some internet commentary identifies the tiny poisonous flowers as lilies of the valley without offering any textual evidence, but according to the National Gardening Association, the lily of the valley simply cannot grow in the warmer climate of southern Florida (“Lily of the Valley in Florida?”).

[6] The image of the bird at such a far remove raises a practical matter. At the distance of the horizon or the “edge of space,” a bird of any size would be difficult to see and even more difficult to hear, but the poet and the songwriter do both with surprising acuity.

[7] “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” Stevens muses ironically in “Peter Quince at the Clavier.”

The Simple Art of Music: Bob Dylan and Noir

ARTICLE BY John Radosta, Independent Scholar

Abstract: This article traces Dylan’s extensive use of, and connections to, crime fiction, tracing its roots from ballads such as “Barbara Allen” through Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories (particularly on the album Tempest), and into film noir. Many of Dylan’s noir songs, such as “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “Down the Highway,” “Scarlet Town,” and “Tin Angel,” share rhythms and themes with crime fiction that highlight the seedy underbelly of society. This is distinct from his songs of social protest, such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” where the goal is to effect change, instead of the vicarious experience of crime for entertainment’s sake. While there has been extensive study of Dylan’s use of film noir dialogue in his lyrics, this study focuses more on the attitudes and aesthetic of pulp fiction. It also includes a review of several of Dylan’s more recent music videos, such as “The Night We Called it a Day” and “Duquesne Whistle,” and their relationship to the noir tradition.

Keywords: James M. Cain; Raymond Chandler; crime fiction; Bob Dylan; James Ellroy; Dashiell Hammett; Griel Marcus; noir; Otto Penzler; Edgar Allan Poe; Harry Smith

Man has climbed Everest. He has invented, devised, created in every realm of human endeavor . . . but there is one that has been neglected, Mr Bond. That one is the human activity loosely known as crime . . . And yet . . . in one week, the curtain will go up for the single, the unique performance. And then will come the applause, the applause for the greatest extra-legal coup of all time. And, Mr Bond, the world will rock with that applause for centuries.

—Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

With the exception, perhaps, of the title of 1983’s “License to Kill,” Bob Dylan seems never to have made an allusion to another enduring cultural phenomenon that came out of the 1960s: James Bond. However, this monologue from Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel (Gert Frobe’s iconic film version was so memorably delivered in 1964) anticipates Dylan’s imminent arrival on the world stage as well as his long-abiding interest in crime fiction. Fleming wrote in the tradition of pulp and noir fiction, a tradition that Dylan continues to honor as he explores criminality throughout his work, not least in the albums of original material he has released recently, starting with Together Through Life. My intention in this essay is not to show that Dylan makes specific references to specific titles—though he does, and they will be explored—but that he draws extensive inspiration from this literary genre. In the same way that he has walked “a road other men have gone down,” reworking the conventions of traditional murder ballads, blues, and other musical styles, Dylan finds a clear appeal in the cynical worldview of noir, which intersects easily with his interest in songs similarly populated by cons, harlots, and other low-lifes. Each artistic medium provides his writing with themes that parallel our times.

Dylan’s early work is best known for his concerns with injustices borne of poverty, social inequality, and race. The 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’ takes aim at the injustice and asks us to change it: when we learn that William Zanzinger, who “Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres / With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him / And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,” walked off with a six-month sentence, Dylan tells us, “Now’s the time for your tears.”[1] When we hear of the mass murder-suicide and “seven new people born”[2] at the end of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” we know instinctively that these new unlucky seven are likely to feel the same weight of poverty and despair that the Browns did, unless we do something to rectify economic inequalities. But improving the human condition is not the primary goal of noir, and so we leave this worthy cause to wander some more.

Noir does cast an eye on the crushing power of situations beyond a person’s control, but it does so mainly to signal the foolishness of the character’s attempts to win a rigged game. American pulp fiction began in the early twentieth century, in magazines such as Black Mask, in which Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories were published, as well as many others including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which survives to this day. The pulps, so called for the cheap paper on which they were printed, emphasized lurid stories, often set in seedy and sleazy corners of the city. There was no pretext of literary merit, just fast-paced stories designed to shock you into turning the page to the next hellish tale. In the introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler defines noir works as

existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.[3]

In his own introductory essay to the same collection, James Ellroy adds that “[t]he social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systematic corruption.”[4] Today, practitioners of noir are as varied as Ken Bruen, Dave Zeltserman, and S. A. Cosby. Given Dylan’s attraction to similar themes, both with an eye towards social improvement in his protest songs, as well as an interest in some of his later work in presenting the seedy spectacle of little people making big mistakes, I would add Bob Dylan to that list.

Before the pulps, there were dime novels and myriad periodicals. One of those was the Philadelphia-based Graham’s Magazine, which, for a time in the early 1840s, was edited by Edgar Allan Poe. While at the helm, Poe published one of his own sensationalizing tales, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which he introduces the first literary detective, C. Auguste Dupin. One inspiration for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dupin used “ratiocination” to deduce the outré truth behind bizarre crimes. But while Holmes generally remains in more civilized circles (except for his occasional escape to an opium den), Poe’s Dupin steps boldly into the darkest corners of society. In “Rue Morgue,” he confronts the brutal, animalistic murders of two women in graphic detail, down to a severed head. In the next Dupin story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842-3), following the tradition of murder ballads, Poe uses as his starting point the real-life murder of the cigar-store girl Mary Rogers, whose body was found in Newark, New Jersey in 1841. The final Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter,” (which the first Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891) significantly resembles), invokes the memory of the surgeon John Abernethy.

It has long been known that Bob Dylan is well-versed in Poe and especially in the Dupin stories. As far back as 1965, he visited “Rue Morgue Avenue” in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”[5] However, especially since the start of the new millennium, he has mined those stories for more than a simple warning to stay away from dangerous neighborhoods. In his Theme Time Radio Hour, ostensibly recorded in the fictional “historic Abernathy building,” he reads “The Raven”[6] and “Annabel Lee.”[7] During the legs of his “Never Ending tour” in support of 2012’s Tempest, ticket pre-sale codes included such allusions to Poe as “nevermore” and “raven.” Meanwhile, several songs on the album make direct references to Poe, including “Duquesne Whistle” and “Scarlet Town,” which features a grotesque ball reminiscent of “Masque of the Red Death.” He also makes a direct reference to “Mr. Poe” and his “tell-tale heart” on his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Dylan’s most detailed exploration of a Dupin story is in the Tempest tune “Tin Angel.” The song depicts a murderous love triangle, in which the cuckolded husband climbs through the window of the room where his wife is visiting her lover. It is a vile story of marital betrayal and murder, reaching as far back as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon—the ancient play in which the triumphant commander of the Greek forces returned home from Troy, only to be murdered in his bed by his wife and her lover—right into the present day. On the face of it, the two works are not immediately connected, beyond the setting of a boudoir, but there are significant recurrences of details. For example, Dupin lives in “a time-eaten and grotesque mansion,”[8] while “the boss” of Dylan’s story comes home to “a deserted mansion and a desolate throne.”[9]

It is in the scenes of murder where Dylan hews closest to Poe’s description. He describes the boss’s approach to the murder room using many of the details scattered about the miserable apartment in the Rue Morgue. All of the witnesses attest to the fact that though they “heard two voices in loud and angry contention—the one a gruff voice, the other much shriller—a very strange voice,” they “[c]ould not be sure whether it was the voice of a man or of a woman.”[10] Dylan echoes that in his depiction of the boss as he “Peered through the darkness, caught a glimpse of the two / It was hard to tell for certain who was who.”[11] His entrance to Henry Lee’s room is similarly detailed. Dupin recognizes that the murderer must have entered and escaped through the windows, as the staircase was being observed. When deducing how the killer gained access to the room, Dupin notes that near the window “in question there runs a lightning-rod.”[12] Dylan takes care to have the boss “Cut the electric wire” before “lowering himself down on a golden chain,”[13] an image quite similar to a copper lightning rod. Both rooms contain gold, the Rue Morgue’s site providing a red herring motive for the murder, while in the song, beyond the golden chain, the faithless wife claims her lover is “dearer to me than gold.”[14] One of the tell-tale clues Dupin finds is “a small piece of ribbon, which from its form, and from its greasy appearance, has evidently been used in tying the hair in one of those long queues of which sailors are so fond.”[15] Meanwhile, Dylan’s harried boss “ran his fingers through his greasy hair.”[16] The cumulative effect of these repeated key words and images reinforces Poe’s influence on Dylan’s writing, while their transformed use in new contexts and plot points illustrates Dylan’s mastery in reinterpreting the source of that influence.

Of course, in Poe’s macabre tale, the killer is inhuman—literally. Straining credulity, Dupin deduces that, given the difficulty in attaining the height of the window and the savagery of the wounds found on the two women, the perpetrator must have been “no animal but an Ourang-Outang.”[17] Twice in Dylan’s song the boss is knocked down a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder to be compared to a similar simian. First, Henry Lee (his name is the same as the title character in Dick Justice’s song on The Anthology of American Folk Music) calls him “a gutless ape with a worthless mind,”[18] and then the spurned husband acknowledges the transformation, telling Henry Lee, “You made a monkey of me, what and for why?”[19]

Poe’s story is notable for its bizarre plot, but also for its unusually diverse cast of characters, one that presents to his audience a broader and more realistic view of society than was often shown to readers at the time. This combination of sensational events taking place within a realistically seedy setting is what spurred American pulp fiction decades later. The stories of both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett feature their heroes tramping through desolate neighborhoods with broken down houses and apartment buildings, bars too cash-poor to afford new signs when they change names, and a frightening array of characters dragging through one miserable hour to the next. The vivid descriptions allow us, the readers, a vicarious (and cheap) thrill in walking down those alleys without the fear of getting a shiv in the back.

Dylan can’t, or won’t, stick with a musical form for more than two or three albums, but his interest in Penzler’s world of bleakness and nihilism, a world seething with the most atavistic levels of lust and greed, is one interest that is long abiding. Returning to his earliest influences from traditional ballads with the pair of albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong in the 1990s, Dylan packed the playlist with murder ballads and voyeuristic glimpses of seedy lowlifes. These songs, like the sensationalist stories portrayed in pulp fiction, were popularized through mass media, first as broadsides, then later as recordings on shellac or vinyl. Over the course of two albums, Dylan sets sail on a transport ship to Australia with “Jim Jones,” he’s sentenced to hard labor on a chain-gang in “You’re Gonna Quit Me,” and he suffers plain old “Hard Times.” During the same period, he also recorded the ghostly murder ballad “Polly Vaughn” and the Robert Johnson tune “32-20 Blues.”

Though these are all covers of traditional ballads and blues, they are late-century rambles through those same dark and dangerous alleys that keep the focus on lurid crime, not for the romance of the west, as in “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” or to protest injustice, as in “Hurricane” or “The Death of Emmett Till.” These songs simply provide the vicarious experience of being in the murder room, of witnessing for ourselves as “they got old Stack-A-Lee and they laid him right back in jail.”[20]

On the Road: From Poisonville to Smithville and Beyond

Noir’s ability to get us to sympathize with low-lifes and losers, to root for sleaze peddlers and dope fiends, to experience the corrupting forces of lust and greed and pure bad faith, is at the rotten heart of pulp fiction. But it grips us by the neck, as Poe’s Ourang-Outang and Chandler’s Moose Malloy both do, and it forces us to not just watch the roiling filth of the cities, but to revel in it

In their novels, both Hammett and Chandler, in addition to countless other pulp writers, explored both the upper crust and the underbelly of society. Hammett moves his unnamed Continental Op through social circles that include rum-runners, duplicitous dames, and corrupt town officials. One such city can be found in “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” which was serialized in Black Mask in 1927, and was ultimately transformed into the novel Red Harvest. In his Introduction to the Hammett collection The Continental Op, Steven Marcus says that Hammett “not only continually juxtaposes and connects the ambiguously fictional worlds of art and of writing with the fraudulently fictional worlds of society; he connects them, juxtaposes them, and sees them in dizzying and baffling interaction.”[21] Some of those juxtapositions can be seen in The Maltese Falcon (a favorite film of Dylan’s, which has provided him with countless lyrics), when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. . . . You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you. . . . If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”[22] The interplay of love, hatred, and the likelihood that her privileged background may get her a lighter sentence all put Spade’s—and Hammett’s—cynicism in the fore. The same types of juxtapositions are rife in Dylan’s work, and are a common source of his art. For example, in “Pay in Blood,” Dylan writes (though on Tempest he sings different lyrics),

Another political pumping out his piss

Another ragged beggar blowin’ ya a kiss

Life is short and it don’t last long

They’ll hang you in the morning and sing ya a song.[23]

His cynicism rivals Hammett’s, with the rhyme linking the political and the beggar, and Spade’s iconic speech reduced to a jaded couplet.

Dylan also shares similarities with Raymond Chandler. In a conversation between Ian Fleming and Chandler, Bond’s creator notes, “the thriller element it seems to me in your books is in the people, the character building, and to a considerable extent in the dialogue, which of course I think is some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today.”[24] Indeed, Chandler’s characters are well built. His knight-errant detective Philip Marlowe, himself the occupant of a room so small he uses a Murphy bed, scales the heights of society, such as when he “call[s] on four million dollars”[25] to meet the decrepit General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. The general, who retained his randiness late into his 60s, when he begat his two wild and wayward daughters, now gets his kicks by sniffing at the cigarettes and booze his visitors enjoy in his sweltering conservatory, which is filled with orchids whose “flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”[26] But later, in Farewell, My Lovely, instead of four million dollars, Marlowe finds himself at a “dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it.”[27] In other words, he walks in a world

in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels . . . a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing.[28]

A world frighteningly like our own, where small people make big mistakes. It is a world eerily similar to the one Dylan depicts in “Early Roman Kings”:

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers, they buy and they sell

They destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well

They’re lecherous and treacherous, hell bent for leather

Each of them bigger than all men put together

Sluggers and muggers wearing fancy gold rings.[29]

In these short lines, Dylan builds those characters Fleming so admired in Chandler’s work. Though we hear none of them speak, their personalities are richly described in their self-importance: every single one of them believes he is more important than the group, and those gold rings most certainly do more than flash as they slug their hapless victims.

That gritty, sensationalist view has long been an important theme in Dylan’s work. Much has been made of his romantic depiction of outlaws and villains, which are prominent in his early work. In his earliest live performances, he sang such songs as “Moonshiner” and Dock Boggs’s “Pretty Polly,” in which Polly pleads for her life as Willie leads her through the woods to her grave. For both complete songs and inspiration for his own compositions, Dylan mined Harry Smith’s The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection Greil Marcus goes so far as to describe as the fictional town “Smithville,” a place where the

prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another. While some may escape justice, they do not remain among their fellow citizens; executions take place in public. There are, after all, a lot of murders here—crimes of passion, of cynicism, of mere reflex—and also suicides. Here both murder and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend.[30]

Likewise, when Dylan recorded his debut album, 1962’s Bob Dylan, he included noir-ish tales like “House of the Rising Sun,” and in “Song to Woody,” he gave a nod to prisoner-turned-recording star Leadbelly.

One trope that infuses noir and Dylan’s work alike is that of the lonesome hobo, cursed like Cain to wander the earth from one rocky coast to the other. In the hands of Woody Guthrie, that type of tramping along the road takes on a romantic air. Guthrie’s “autobiography” Bound for Glory, an early influence on Dylan, describes the situation like this:

I walked on down the highway bucking the wind. It got so hard I had to really duck my head and push. Yes. I know this old flat country up here on the caprock plains. Gumbo mud. Hard crust sod. Iron grass for tough cattle and hard-hitting cowboys that work for the ranchers. These old houses that sweep with the country and look like they’re crying in the dust. I know who’s in there. I know. I’ve stuck my head in a million. Drove tractors, cleaned plows and harrows, greased discs and pulled tumbleweeds out from under the machinery. That wind is getting harder. Whoooooo![31]

The wandering is adventurous, a tale to be told with the cheerful glee of a raconteur. But a noir story, while presenting the same milieu of down-and-out laborers and drifters, has a mean glint in the eye, a cynical contempt for the world and everyone in it. For example, in the classic 1934 tragedy The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain’s doomed lovers Frank and Cora have the following exchange:

“We’ll ditch this Greek and blow. Just blow.”

“Where to?”

“Anywhere. What do we care?”

“Anywhere. Anywhere. You know where that is?”

“All over. Anywhere we choose.”

“No it’s not. It’s the hash house.”

“I’m not talking about the hash house. I’m talking about the road. It’s fun, Cora. And nobody knows it better than I do. I know every twist and turn it’s got. And I know how to work it, too. Isn’t that what we want? Just to be a pair of tramps, like we really are?”[32] [33]

The same rhythms, the same optimistic misery can be heard in “Down the Highway”:

Well, I’m bound to get lucky, baby

Or I’m bound to die tryin’

Yes, I’m a-bound to get lucky, baby

Lord, Lord I’m a-bound to die tryin’

Well, meet me in the middle of the ocean

And we’ll leave this ol’ highway behind…[34]

None of Guthrie’s chipper road-earned wisdom is here, no pride in hard work or joy in the company of your fellow man or woman. Just an ongoing war against a hard-lipped fate that always crushes you in the end.

That hard-lipped fate is right there in front of you in “Scarlet Town,” from 2012’s Tempest. Dylan’s Scarlet Town shares borders with Smithville and Poisonville. Here, “the evil and the good” live “side by side.”[35] The song is a fascinating nexus of ancient balladry, nursery rhyme, biblical excess, and tragic waste. Some versions of the ballad “Barbara Allen” (though not the version Dylan sang in the Greenwich Village coffee houses) are set in Scarlet Town, and here, as in that song, a young man named William lies dying for the love of a woman. But instead of telling the tale of too-late repentance, this song moves out of the death room to investigate other scenes of filth. Beggars crouch at the gate, love is a sin, and beauty is a crime. In Scarlet Town, all manner of perversions fester, where you fight your father’s foes “with whiskey, morphine and gin” and then dance with your “flat chested junky whore”[36]—not an inaccurate description of the blackmailed daughter of General Sternwood, Carmen, that Philip Marlowe deals with in The Big Sleep: after rescuing her from a drugged nude photo shoot, he later kicks her out of his apartment when he finds her recreating the scene in his Murphy bed. The 1946 film of The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, provides a number of lyrics to Dylan tunes over the years, as Michael Gray points out.[37] But it also has another connection to Dylan’s output: in one scene, when the stars speak in a restaurant, the music in the background is the song, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” which he recorded for his last collection of American standards, Triplicate, in 2017.


Blood in My Eyes: Femmes Fatales in Story and Song

The land of noir is a bastion of male misery, and, like the blues, this literary genre often trades in a simple, brutish attitude toward gender roles. In these tales, men are most often the aggrieved party, brought low by the machinations of a beautiful but foul woman. It’s an attitude that reaches as far back as Eve and the “beautiful evil,” Pandora. Dylan modernizes the image with the wife in “Tin Angel,” discussed above.

Jim Thompson gives us several such “beautiful evils,” notably in A Hell of a Woman. The 1954 novel follows the much-put-upon traveling salesman Frank “Dolly” Dillon (while the names are similar, it’s unlikely that young, ambitious Robert Zimmerman looked to this book for his stage name). At the start, he’s just another employee at Pay-E-Zee Stores, where you “got used to people who hid when they saw you coming.”[38] But then he meets the alluring Mona, pimped by her own aunt, who sets him off on a tragic spiral. When Dolly’s wife leaves him, she tells him, “I’m leaving. Now. Tonight. I don’t want anything from you. I can pawn my watch and ring—get enough to get by on until I land a job. All I want is to get away from here.”[39] Dylan echoes that decisive line in “Crossing the Rubicon”: “I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon.”[40] The similarity of diction across the decades shows Dylan’s continued participation in the tradition of pulp and balladry.

During his sojourn with the Band in West Saugerties, New York, in the late 1960s, Dylan rediscovered that vast Americana collection of balladry and turned toward recording a string of outlaw and prison songs found or inspired by the denizens of what Greil Marcus, in Invisible Republic, would later name “Smithville.” In these sessions, Dylan and the Band covered such songs as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That Auld Triangle,” and “The Hills of Mexico.” Smithville, as Marcus defines it, is a noir town, feverish with desperation, a place where “some crimes are instantly turned into legends.”[41] Whenever Dylan travels through its environs, he gleans images and sordid tales that he salts away for later. For example, the caged bird who witnesses the murder of a lover in “Love Henry” on World Gone Wrong, first took flight in Dick Justice’s song “Henry Lee” on Smith’s Anthology. Another legend-turned-song is “Frankie and Albert,” which Dylan recorded for 1992’s Good As I Been to You. In this semi-true story, which is also told in Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” in Smith’s collection, the woman gets her revenge, insofar as the song relates the murder of Allen Britt by his wronged lover Frankie Baker. Their relationship may have been even more complicated, as some reports suggest Britt was Frankie’s pimp. In any case, it’s another miserable ending sung in the gutter of a dead end street.


Drinking from an Old Tin Cup: Jailhouse Confessions

One aspect of noir that often gets lost in the celebratory leering at vice and corruption, is that it is a fundamentally conservative genre. For all its wallowing in sin and foulness, noir plays a redemptive societal role, in that it rarely allows the misfits and criminals to win their crooked games. With a dying breath or the clang of a closing cell door, right is usually restored at the end. In the same way, many of the murder ballads and other tunes Dylan has recorded present a fated justice that strikes at the heart of those who would dare to transgress society’s moral values.

One song that illustrates this is “Delia,” recorded for World Gone Wrong. Dylan sticks close to the traditional version, in which Curtis is arrested and put on trial after murdering the gambling girl of the title. Smugly the killer addresses the judge, only to be coldly rebuffed:

Curtis said to the judge, “What might be my fine?”

Judge says, “Poor boy, you got ninety-nine.”

All the friends I ever had are gone.[42]

In the liner notes Dylan says of the song, in his idiosyncratic typing,

Delia herself . . . doesn’t need a blood change & would never go on a shopping spree. the guy in the courthouse sounds like a pimp in primary colors . . . does this song have rectitude? you bet. toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.[43]

What is “unacceptable,” Dylan doesn’t specify. While it’s clear that his sympathy, and the song’s, are with Delia, the fact that she herself is a “gambling girl” and is shot dead suggests that she, too, is in need of rectitude. In the end, all are punished.

On the next track of the same album, Dylan follows the convict into the Smithville jail. In his version of Frank Hutchison’s oft-covered “Stackalee,” Dylan presents the supernatural agony that comes of a senseless killing:

Stack-A-Lee turned to the jailer, he said, “Jailer, I can’t sleep.

’Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep.”

All about that John B. Stetson hat.[44]

It’s a knife-edge walk between reveling in the criminality of associating oneself with the villain, and assuming the air of righteousness by seeing him succumb to his existential punishment.

The guilty thrill of the jail cell continues in 1997’s “Cold Irons Bound,” in which the narrator is “beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around.”[45] We never find out what his crime was, but there is a strong sense that he has killed the woman he loved. The rest of the song is a plea to a woman who drives him “out of control” with a single look, one he “tried to love and protect,” despite the fact that “Some things last longer than you think they will / There are some kinds of things you can never kill.”[46] The cumulative references to mud, blood, and his seeing her from his cell “twenty miles out of town,” even though she can’t see him, suggest she’s alive in his conscience but not in the real world. The punishment never ends, warning both the readers of pulp and Dylan’s listeners that to act on their prurient curiosity will bring them no good.


Peddlers and Meddlers: Recent Noir Imaginings

In the new millennium, Dylan’s work took on more and more examples of sudden violence, even in seemingly urbane love songs. Throughout “Love and Theft” (its title is taken from Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy, but the sentiment equally applies to the idea that the album showcases the musical styles and literature Dylan plunders for inspiration), danger lurks around every turn of phrase. Among many oft-discussed allusions—some have argued thefts—on the album are lines from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. Lewis Carroll’s Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are shown “throwing knives into a tree” and in possession of a “dead man’s bones.” This is not Alice’s perverse looking-glass world, but the even worse “Land of Nod,” home to the Bible’s first murderer and noir-ish wanderer, Cain, whose ironic punishment is a desperate life without death. The nonsensical partners in crime traverse a terrifying landscape of casual cruelty, where “a childish dream is a deathless need”[47]—the very definition of a noir loser’s motivation.

The world-weary fatalism of noir continues in “Mississippi.” Here, the speaker’s loving tones belie the hardship he and his partner have endured, “all boxed in, nowhere to escape.” When Dylan says, “Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around,”[48] one can imagine “Dolly” Dillon knocking on one door after another, getting the same miserable response.

Though Dylan never strays too far from the noir sentiment, it is on Together Through Life where he dives into the abyss. The album, with David Hidalgo’s accordion suggesting the norteño music of a border town, is a grim depiction of urban decay. The opening track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” written with Robert Hunter, is spoken in the voice of a deluded pulp hero:

Just as long as you stay with me

The whole world is my throne.[49]

But his tragic flaw of grandiosity is throttled in the downbeat lines that finish each stanza, especially the closing line, “Nothin’ done and nothin’ said.”[50] In classic noir fashion, the protagonist reaches too high, only to be thrown back to the ground.

This series of Dylan’s musical tales of “flawed and morally questionable” characters culminates in 2012’s Tempest, a noir album through and through. This album, long thought to be Dylan’s final collection of original material until this year’s release of Rough and Rowdy Ways, seethes with rage, vitriol, and violence. Even a swinging tune like “Duquesne Whistle” hides menace by way of its allusions to Poe (“Blowin’ like she’s at my chamber door”), trips through “another no-good town,”[51] and offers the threat of a time bomb. To listen to the music and Dylan’s smooth singing on “Soon After Midnight,” you might think the track could have been slipped onto one of his collections of American standards, but its lyrics prove there is little love to be found here. It’s jarring enough to hear Dylan say in that sweet melody that he’s “been down on the killing floors.”[52] However, the image gets nastier when you realize it’s an allusion to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” which uses the slaughterhouse to describe the singer’s relationship with a woman. By continuing the misogynistic thread of early pulp stories, the song introduces murder to what pretends to be a romantic stroll.

When Dylan surprised us all with the gift of Rough and Rowdy Ways in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Los Angeles Times called it a “savage pulp-noir masterpiece.”[53] In fact, it knots together many separate threads of Dylan’s preoccupations, including nineteenth century poetry (“I Contain Multitudes”), the twining of music and history (“Murder Most Foul”), and the ancient world (“Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon”). That’s not to say that the Times got it entirely wrong. The album’s second track, “False Prophet” evokes the despair of good intentions gone bad that accompanies most pulp:

Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt

I know how it happened – I saw it begin

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.[54]

As on Tempest, casual violence seeps throughout the album. For example, in “I Contain Multitudes,” he claims to carry “four pistols and two large knives.”[55] He continues to seethe through the defiant declarations of “Crossing the Rubicon”:

I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage

I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age.[56]

There are also spurts of hardboiled cynicism. It’s easy to imagine Humphrey Bogart quipping the lines from “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” perhaps to Lauren Bacall:

Fly around my Pretty Little Miss

I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss.[57]

But these are flashes of cynicism and violence amidst so many other allusions to other songs, films, historical events and figures that it’s hard to credit the whole album as a noir. Instead, the genre has become another pattern woven into the larger tapestry of Dylan’s work, black and white threads that he pulls to emphasize a detail or draw a connection between genres or historical events. Perhaps, as the Times says, it is a pulp-noir masterpiece, but only because Dylan’s overarching artistic theme is that the whole world is in the throes of what Ellroy terms “systematic corruption.” It’s a jaded view, but one borne out by verse after verse of Dylan’s output addressing society’s ills throughout his career.


He Went to Hollywood: Noir Influences on Dylan’s Music Videos

Dylan’s appearances in such films as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and his own Renaldo & Clara reveal his interest in visual media, and it is worth noting that both films involve a fascination with criminality. For instance, a complicated subplot of the later movie involves Harry Dean Stanton as the escaped con Lefkezio. However, while study of Dylan’s work in film has been considerable, his music videos have not been discussed to any great extent. Yet it is in these short films that he interacts directly with noir images, often making visual references to tropes and even specific titles. Music videos, by their very nature, are collaborative projects, and it isn’t always easy to discern Dylan’s involvement in their production, but the connections between the few he has released and classic film noir are pervasive and provide yet another lens through which to examine Dylan’s contributions to the genre.

It has been often pointed out that Dylan’s album Empire Burlesque is laden with lines quoted from a number of classic movies, notably The Maltese Falcon. Interestingly, the record’s release in 1985 coincided with the rise of music videos. Ever dubious of fads, Dylan’s entries to the MTV listings were sparse. But two videos he did make to support this album—“Tight Connection to My Heart” and “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”—each bears strong connections to noir. A third, “Emotionally Yours,” is not so obviously influenced by noir, but some similarities lead it to be caught up in the dragnet of this discussion.

The techniques used in film noir, especially those made in the post-war era between the 1930s and 1950s, involve stark contrasts between light and dark. Shadows pervade every frame, symbolizing the evil that lurks in every darkened doorway. Paul Schrader, in “Notes on Film Noir,” points out that “[l]ight enters the dingy rooms of film noir in such odd shapes . . . that one suspects the windows were cut out with a pen knife.”[58] Noir characters rarely see the sun, only the glare of a bare bulb in an interrogation room, or a flashing neon sign. Men dress in rumpled trench coats and fedoras tilted to hide their guilty faces. Society women appear in elaborate hats and elbow-length gloves, while their skid-row counterparts try to doll up in tattered fur collars and threadbare dresses. Bootleg whiskey mixes with blood in the gutters, and huge cars speed through the streets, desperate to outrace fate. The visual cues to virtue and vice are never subtle.

Dylan’s videos, especially from the early period marked by Empire Burlesque, approach noir in an ambivalent fashion. For example, the video for “Tight Connection to My Heart,” a song made up almost entirely of lines from old movies, pointedly avoids the harsh dichotomy of black and white, and instead is splashed with color. The setting, too, is transported from New York or Los Angeles to neon-lit Japan. But the story elements are plainly derived from the golden age of B-reels. In it, Dylan plays a man who may or may not be involved in a crime, one that left a body on the sidewalk outside of movie theater. Dragged by Japanese police into the interrogation room, he lip-syncs, “You want to talk to me, go ahead and talk,”[59] a favorite line from The Maltese Falcon (he later used it in Hearts of Fire as well). The wardrobe designers trade fedoras and trench coats in for a trucker’s cap and a garish ‘80s shirt, but one of the two femmes fatales wears a white dress very similar to the one Jane Greer sports in her entrance at the start of Out of the Past. These scenes represent an overt attempt to drag the seediness of noir into the bright lights of Miami Vice. But it is ultimately unsuccessful, bordering on camp: Dylan winds up on a karaoke stage, trying to match the choreography of a trio of young women.

Darkness and sharp shadows make a return in the video for “Emotionally Yours,” directed by Dave Stewart. Most of the video shows Dylan playing guitar in what looks like a bar or dancehall after closing time. Despite the seedy setting and black and white film, the mood is distinctly modern, but a few elements hint at something menacing. Silhouettes of crossed girders are projected on a wall; through a discarded photo shown at the start and end, as well as flashbacks, we see images of a tempestuous relationship, another trope of noir film. Schrader argues that such complex chronologies “reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time,”[60] which certainly is appropriate to this video, as well as to the bulk of Dylan’s work. A strange figure of the woman, hands at her neck as if fighting off someone choking her, can be seen rotating beneath a spotlight. The effect is a mismatch of words and images, once again displaying Dylan’s holding the past and present in an uneasy balance.

Perhaps the most successful of the trio, in terms of incorporating noir aesthetics into a modern setting, is “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” directed by Eddie Arno and Markus Innocenti. This time, an appropriate setting—the back alleys of Los Angeles—and black and white film situate the video in a classic mode. In what looks like a performance at an illicit club, one spied on by kids through a back window, Dylan sings lines that might have been penned by Hammett:

I can’t provide for you no easy answers

Who are you that I should have to lie?

And later he adds,

You must have been protecting someone last time I called.


I’ve never asked you to set yourself up for a fall.[61]

In his 2000 book Song and Dance Man, Gray points out film lines from other sections of the song,[62] but in these two verses, Dylan’s own cynicism and snappy retorts are of a piece with all the hard-boiled books and films we’re looking at here. He conjures up an entire scene of someone, probably a woman torn between two men, huddled over a telephone receiver. The scenario and the clichéd set-up are just what you’d expect from a pulp novel.

Never one to sit still, after Empire Burlesque, Dylan released a few more music videos in the 1980s, though none with noir connections. But with the album Under the Red Sky (1990), Dylan returned to the form. After trying to update the genre in fluorescent ‘80s duds, his clip for “Unbelievable” used more traditional noir images: a pair of classic Mustang convertibles, bar fights, cheap motels, and a trip through the desert, where the hero is robbed by a duplicitously sexy (though not noir-ishly sultry) woman, played by Molly Ringwald. The license plate shown at the end, as the main character is picked up in a limousine chauffeured by Dylan himself, suggests that the whole thing has been one bad trip: LSD 752. The chaotic camera work and the unexplained nose-ringed pig in the back seat might seem to weaken the connection to noir, but as Oliver Harris notes, such disorientation in noir “functions . . . to implicate the film viewer in the dream within the film.”[63] By making us question whether we have just watched an actual narrative or fantasized one concocted from noir elements we have internalized over years of film viewing, Dylan (in conjunction with the director Paris Barclay), makes us complicit in that chaos.

In contrast, his twenty-first century efforts have stuck closer to the timeless images that harken back to the shadowy camera work and scruffy losers. His 2008 video for “Dreamin’ of You” (an outtake from 1997’s Time Out of Mind) returns to the lonely desert roads hazy with heat, and the washed-out colors of sleazy, sun-baked motels. The video features Harry Dean Stanton, veteran of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and, as already noted, Renaldo & Clara (closing another link, he also starred with Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink). Here, Stanton is noir personified, wearing a shapeless fedora, white shirt, and black tie. He’s a bootlegger, too—of concert performances. The feverish shots of him driving from show to show, plotting his trips with string on wall maps, and checking set lists with mug after mug of diner coffee portray his desperation and dedication to a cause that isn’t worth the gas money. Unlike the previous videos, this one could have been shot at almost any time over the last 75 years.

Even through his later music videos, Dylan’s fascination with and reworking of familiar noir tropes continues. He uses these raw materials to project new ideas onto the screen, as he works through the themes of alienation and violence, noted by Penzler and Ellroy, and offers them as reflections not of the smoky past, but a cold, bleak present. The first of these later explorations is “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” from Together Through Life. It is clearly not “classic” noir in the sense that the narrative inverts the typical noir plot: it starts with brutality and ends with a kiss. The director, Nash Edgerton, told Pitchfork, “Usually, you get sent a song and you listen to it a bunch and then you write a treatment. But because it was Dylan, and piracy and all that, I only got to hear the song once over the phone.”[64] All the same Edgerton’s treatment—set in a run-down motel with a blood-stained bed and restraints, a syringe and no visible life outside—must have appealed to Dylan’s cinematic sense. As we watch the man (Joel Stoffer) enter the apartment, he’s scruffy, carrying a package the contents of which never get revealed, reminiscent of many noir and hardboiled MacGuffins (including the Mickey Spillane film Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which is the glowing inspiration for 1984’s Repo Man—featuring Harry Dean Stanton—and Pulp Fiction (1994)). What follows is a whiplash series of attacks, in which the two antagonists, a man and a woman, strike, stab, and brutalize each other, culminating in the woman running him over with a car. Yet, instead of riding off and leaving him for dead, she gets out of the car, and the last shot is of her kissing him. The expectant look on the man’s face is one of hope, not tragedy, and so reverses the effect of noir.

Edgarton returned to direct three other song videos for Dylan, all of which tend to the dark side. Even “Must Be Santa” features what must be the worst Christmas party ever, with an unexplained fugitive tearing the place up. Its black and white countdown opening and the decorations in the house suggest the 1940s or 1950s, though other than that there are no connections to film noir. But Edgarton returns to the noir atmosphere of Tempest, in the video for “Duquesne Whistle.” Separate from the images in the song itself, as discussed above, the video presents two stories in fractured narrative: by night, Dylan and a crew of followers walk through gritty streets; by day, a clearly delusional man, with the gaunt face and lopsided grin of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, struts through the same streets, stalking a woman who doesn’t hesitate to mace him. From there, the video explodes into rampaging violence: his escape from the police leads him to push over a ladder that holds a man changing the movie title on a rusting theater marquee. The pathetic post-beating fantasy he dreams while being transported in a van brings us back to the last ramblings of Frank in The Postman Always Rings Twice: “Whenever I can make it, I’m out there with Cora, with the sky above us, and the water around us, talking about how happy we’re going to be, and how it’s going to last forever.”[65] But there is no stay of execution for Frank, and the delusional young man is tossed onto the sidewalk, stepped over by Dylan and his tough-looking crew. The message is the opposite of that in “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”: there is no loving redemption to be had for the miserable. These juxtaposed views in consecutive videos suggest Dylan’s refusal to give answers, only vignettes that force us to judge for ourselves.

The culmination of all of these videos, though, is the black and white film that accompanies the Sinatra cover, “The Night We Called It A Day.” Starring Robert Davi and Tracy Phillips, along with Dylan himself, Edgarton’s “Night” is a full-blown noir. From the title card scrawled in B-movie script to the murderous love triangle that disintegrates under chloroform, a fireplace poker, and bullets, every noir trope makes an appearance. In the opening shot, Dylan walks past a bleeding man talking to a cop and into a bar, where Phillips is dancing a burlesque. Over a drink, he shows Davi the ring he’s going to give Phillips, only to be shown a bigger one in return. But later, when Davi arrives at her apartment, he finds a gun-toting Dylan, who turns aside as Phillips brutally murders Davi. It looks like the pair will live happily ever after, until they pull guns on each other in the elevator. Flashes of light suggest shots, but we don’t know what happened. The black and white is used to excellent effect as Phillips strides out of the elevator alone, her white dress radiant. Suddenly a blood stain grows on her abdomen. Dylan escapes from the police out a back door, driving off in a hail of gunfire. “The End” appears in looping script.

As with “Dreamin’ of You,” the video is timeless. While most of the cars hail from the 1940s and 1950s, Davi’s is from the 1970s. And while Davi wears the noir uniform of black hat, black tie, and white shirt, Dylan’s patterned tie, and, later, untucked button down and black t-shirt all point to the present day. The result is a tightly woven tapestry of Dylan’s voice, the evocative strings of the music, and the iconic shadows and violence of a B-reel. In three short minutes, “Night” ties together three-quarters of a century of music, film, and cultural history by way of its images of blood, betrayal, and greed.

The sensationalism of a classic noir calls to mind the violence of our own present and shows that its tangled roots are buried deep in a soil soaked in that same betrayal, blood, and greed. Schrader discusses noir’s rise amid the disillusionment that followed the Second World War,[66] and it’s interesting to note that Dylan turns to its themes during moments of national upheaval, such as the economic crises of the 1980s, the post-9/11 period, and the COVID pandemic and civil rights protests of 2020. Through both his musical and video output, Dylan, like the writers of pulp and the directors of film noir, lures us in with the vicarious thrill that mass entertainment promises. His depictions of a world where everything is broken fascinate and repel, forcing his audience to come to terms with their own complicity and mortality. By trafficking in familiar themes of vice and wholesale corruption, and by using images and even verbatim lines from folk and blues, from pulp literature and film noir, Dylan speaks to his audience with a common vocabulary.

But that common vocabulary is used with uncommon subtlety. As the transmitter of a larger, infinitely complicated culture, Dylan urges us to reckon with the truths that these dark stories reveal about corruption in our most trusted institutions, as well as in our own hearts. By reworking images that return to us out of the past, he involves us in that narrative and questions our future. Thus, the culmination of his work transcends the limits of cheap mass media. Instead of simply providing that vicarious thrill, he uses the elements of noir—its preoccupation with lust, greed, misogyny, and class inequality, as well as our own uncertainty—to highlight the ills of society in much the same way he did with his protest songs. These short morality tales act as a call to action, one in which we are all urged to make a plea for peace and justice.

[1] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/lonesome-death-hattie-carroll/.

[2] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/ballad-hollis-brown/.

[3] Penzler,”Foreword,” x.

[4] Ellroy, “Introduction,” xiii.

[5] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/just-tom-thumbs-blues/.

[6] Dylan, “Halloween.” 2006. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive. https://www.themetimeradio.com/?s=Halloween.

[7] Dylan, “Women’s Names.” 2007. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive. https://www.themetimeradio.com/episode-35-womens-names/.

[8] Poe, “Murders,” 106.

[9] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tin-angel/.

[10] Poe, “Murders,” 114.

[11] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tin-angel/.

[12] Poe, “Murders,” 127.

[13] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tin-angel/.

[14] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tin-angel/.

[15] Poe, “Murders,” 134.

[16] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tin-angel/.

[17] Poe, “Murders,” 133.

[18] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tin-angel/.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/stack-lee/.

[21] S. Marcus, Introduction, xxiv.

[22] Hammett, Falcon, 211.

[23] Bobdylan.com,  https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/pay-blood/.

[24] Chandler, Interview.

[25] Chandler, Sleep, 3.

[26] Chandler, Sleep, 11.

[27] Chandler, Farewell, 304.

[28] Chandler, “Art,” 17.

[29] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/early-roman-kings/.

[30] G. Marcus, Republic, 124.

[31] Guthrie, Bound, 193.

[32] Cain, Postman, 13.

[33] The novel also features the following passage, which has the same refrain as the Shel Silverstein song Dylan sings to Fiona in Hearts of Fire: “We just got to sell him a story, that’s all. You were in here, and the lights popped, and you heard him slip and fall, and he didn’t answer when you spoke to him. Then you called me, that’s all. Not matter what he says, you got to stick to it. If he saw anything, it was just his imagination, that’s all” (Cain 19).

[34] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/down-highway/.

[35] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/scarlet-town/.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Gray, Encyclopedia, 226.

[38] Thompson, Woman, 4.

[39] Thompson, Woman, 30.

[40] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/crossing-the-rubicon/.

[41] G. Marcus, Republic, 135.

[42] Bobdylan.com, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/delia/.

[43] Dylan, “About the songs.”

[44] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/stack-lee/.

[45] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/cold-irons-bound/.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tweedle-dee-tweedle-dum/.

[48] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/mississippi/.

[49] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/beyond-here-lies-nothin/.

[50] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/beyond-here-lies-nothin/.

[51] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/duquesne-whistle/.

[52] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/soon-after-midnight/.

[53] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-06-12/bob-dylan-rough-and-rowdy-ways-album-review.

[54] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/false-prophet/.

[55] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/i-contain-multitudes/.

[56] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/crossing-the-rubicon/.

[57] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/key-west-philosopher-pirate/.

[58] Schrader, “Notes,” 11.

[59] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tight-connection-my-heart-has-anyone-seen-my-love/.

[60] Schrader, “Notes,” 11.

[61] Bobdylan.com, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/when-night-comes-falling-sky/.

[62] Gray, Song and Dance, 552, 556.

[63] Harris, “Fascination,“ 8.

[64] https://pitchfork.com/news/35479-directors-cut-bob-dylans-beyond-here-lies-nothin/

[65] Cain, Postman, 121.

[66] Schrader, “Notes,” 9.


Cain, James M. The Postman Always Rings Twice. New York: Pocket Books, 1947.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Quality, 1995.

———. Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Quality, 1995.

———. “The Simple Art of Murder.” The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vintage. 1988.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Clinton, MA: Airmont, 1966.

Dombal, Ryan. “Director’s Cut: Bob Dylan’s ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” Pitchforkhttps://pitchfork.com/news/35479-directors-cut-bob-dylans-beyond-here-lies-nothin/.

Dylan, Bob. “About the Songs (What They’re About).” Liner notes to World Gone Wrong. New York: Columbia, 1993.

———. “Halloween.” 2006. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive. https://www.themetimeradio.com/?s=Halloween.

———. “Women’s Names.” 2007. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive. https://www.themetimeradio.com/episode-35-womens-names/.

Ellroy, James. “Introduction.” The Best American Noir of the Century. Eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

Fleming, Ian. Goldfinger. New York: Jove, 1980.

Gray, Michael. Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. London: Continuum, 2000.

———. The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, New York: Continuum, 2006.

Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York: Plume, 1983.

Hammett, Dashiell. “The Cleansing of Poisonville.” The Big Book of the Continental Op. Eds. Richard Laymand and Julie M. Rivett. New York: Vintage, 2017.

———. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Harris, Oliver. “Film Noir Fascination: Outside History, but Historically so.” Cinema Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, Autumn, 2003. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1225928. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Marcus, Steven. Introduction. The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Penzler, Otto. Foreword. The Best American Noir of the Century. Eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Pocket, 1956.

———. “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Pocket, 1956.

———. “The Purloined Letter.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Pocket, 1956.

Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment, vol. 8, no. 1, (SPRING 1972), pp. 8-13. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43752885. Accessed: 1 Dec. 2020.

Thompson, Jim. A Hell of a Woman. New York: Mulholland, 2014.

Wilentz, Sean and Greil Marcus, ed. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. New York: Norton, 2005.

Wood, Mikael. “Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is a savage pulp-noir Masterpiece.” Los Angeles Timeshttps://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-06-12/bob-dylan-rough-and-rowdy-ways-album-review.



Dylan, Bob. “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” 1964. Track 2 on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” 2009. Track 1 on Together Through Life. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” 1963. Track 1 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———.  “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” 1963. Track 5 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Cold Irons Bound.” 1997. Track 8 on Time Out of Mind. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Crossing the Rubicon.” 2020. Track 8 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Delia.” 1993. Track 6 on World Gone Wrong. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” 1963. Track 7 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Down the Highway.” 1963. Track 4 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Duquesne Whistle.” 2012. Track 1 on Tempest. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Early Roman Kings.” 2012. Track 7 on Tempest. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “False Prophet.” 2020. Track 2 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Girl From the North Country.” 1963. Track 2 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “High Water (For Charlie Patton).” 2001. Track 7 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance.” 1963. Track 12 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “I Contain Multitudes.” 2020. Track 1 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “John Wesley Harding.” 1967. Track 1 on John Wesley Harding. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” 1965. Track 8 on Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” 2020. Track 9 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” 1964. Track 9 on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Love and Theft.” 2001. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Mississippi.” 2001. Track 2 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Moonlight.” 2001. Track 8 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “My Own Version of You.” 2020. Track 3 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Pay in Blood.” 2012. Track 5 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Scarlet Town.” 2012. Track 6 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Soon after Midnight.” 2012. Track 2 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love).” 1985. Track 1 on Empire Burlesque. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Tin Angel.” 2012. Track 8 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

______.  “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.” 2001. Track 1 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

______. “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky.” 1985. Track 8 on Empire Burlesque. Columbia. Compact disc.

Howlin’ Wolf. “Killing Floor.” iTunes audio, 2:50. 2003.

Hutchison, Frank. “Stackalee.” 1952. Track 5 on Disc 1B of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. Compact disc.

Justice, Dick. “Henry Lee.” 1952. Track 1 on Disc 1A of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. Compact disc.

Mississippi John Hurt. “Frankie.” 1952. Track 7 on Disc 1B of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. Compact disc.

Young Goodman Dylan: Chronicles at the Crossroads

ARTICLE BY Graley Herren, Xavier University

Abstract: Although usually categorized as a memoir, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One, is better understood as a work of autobiographical fiction. Like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dylan uses a fictional avatar (referred to here as Young Goodman Dylan) to explore key junctures in his development as an artist. In the “New Morning” chapter of Chronicles, Dylan draws heavily upon the literary and musical trope of selling one’s soul to the Devil at the crossroads. Dylan the Chronicler depicts Young Goodman Dylan at a crossroads where he must choose between collaborating with Archibald MacLeish on the diabolical play Scratch or remaining out of the public spotlight to protect his family. On the surface, this conflict is depicted as a battle of darkness versus light, with the Everyman figure choosing the path of light and family over the path of darkness and public reengagement. However, Dylan the Chronicler complicates this moral dilemma by equating darkness with truth in this case, and light with an abnegation of artistic responsibility. Elderly Dylan’s ambivalence toward his younger self’s decisions is epitomized in his underwhelming assessment of the album New Morning.

Keywords: Chronicles, Volume One; crossroads; Devil; Dylan, Bob; MacLeish, Archibald; morality play; Scratch

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature almost entirely for his work as a songwriter and performing artist. However, he is also the author of one great literary work of fiction—and no, I’m not talking about Tarantula. I am referring to Chronicles, Volume One. By labeling the work fiction, I do not mean to pass negative judgment on Dylan as a plagiarist, although it is well documented by now that he “borrowed” scenes and passages from dozens of unattributed sources in the book. Far from dismissing Chronicles as a fraud, I admire it as a deeply truthful fiction. The book is best approached not as memoir but as Künstlerroman, an apprenticeship novel about the growth and development of an artist. The author Bob Dylan’s relationship to the character Bob Dylan in Chronicles is similar to James Joyce’s relationship to the character Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both protagonists bear striking resemblances to their authors, and both writers draw generously from their own lives for raw material. But these are fictions: highly selective, substantially reimagined, aesthetically stylized, deftly veiled self-portraits. As Timothy Hampton asserts in Bob Dylan’s Poetics, “To study Dylan’s art and its combinatory power, we need to take into account the different ways in which he uses the ‘I’ who appears in his compositions. This ‘I’ is, of course, a fiction. . . . It is a character that Dylan invents anew for each song. Sometimes that character knows many things. Sometimes it knows little. Sometimes it thinks it knows more than it does. Sometimes it says more than it knows” (18). The same holds true for Dylan’s depiction of “Dylan” in Chronicles.

One sign of the fictional status of Chronicles is the way in which Dylan bends his memories and molds his reconstructions to fit with preexisting myths, legends, archetypes, and literary tropes. A paradigm he uses to great effect in Chronicles is the crossroads. On multiple occasions, he stages life-altering encounters where the protagonist stakes his soul and must choose a path toward either salvation or damnation. The crossroads tradition has many variations and is centuries old. Perhaps the oldest example comes in Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus kills his father where three roads meet, sealing his fate before completing the prophecies down the road to Thebes. In medieval morality plays the trope involved an Everyman figure tempted toward Hell by figures of Vice, but ultimately choosing the pathway to Heaven pointed out by figures of Virtue. Later in the Renaissance, most famously in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, hubris leads Faustus to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for secret knowledge and power. In early American literature the classic expression of the trope is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” where a young Puritan is torn between staying at home with his young wife or wandering into the dark woods with a distinctly American Devil associated with the young country’s original sins. The most famous example from twentieth-century American literature is “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét, where Jabez Stone of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, sells his soul to the Devil but then convinces famous orator and politician Daniel Webster to defend him. I don’t know if Dylan has read or seen any of these works, but he has clearly absorbed the tradition from somewhere. Of course, we know that he was intimately familiar with the blues tradition of selling one’s soul at the crossroads. Robert Johnson allegedly did so in exchange for superhuman musical gifts, inspiring songs like “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” and “Cross Road Blues.” Dylan’s own most extensive and slyly subversive treatment of the crossroads theme occurs in the third chapter of Chronicles titled “New Morning.”

In this chapter the protagonist—let’s think of him as Young Goodman Dylan—finds himself at the crossroads after his motorcycle accident, when he stopped touring and started focusing instead on his new marriage and family. The young husband and father saw the choices before him in stark moral terms of good and evil, the pathway of light splitting off sharply from the pathway of darkness. However, it is important to draw distinctions between the protagonist’s perspective and that of his author. The older Dylan who writes Chronicles takes a longer view and has a fuller sense of where these divergent paths lead. His quasi-autobiographical younger self chooses a path away from celebrity and public engagement in favor of home, family, and some semblance of privacy. Old Dylan defends those decisions as right at the time; but he also foreshadows different decisions at crossroads farther down the road, leading him eventually back to the world stage.

Archibald MacLeish is a crucial figure in Dylan’s crossroads morality play. Prior to the publication of Chronicles, most readers knew very little about the failed collaboration between the two, other than the fact that a few songs written for MacLeish’s play eventually made their way onto Dylan’s next album New Morning. It was therefore a surprise when Dylan chose to feature MacLeish so prominently. Factual inaccuracies abound in Dylan’s reconstruction of their encounters. He sets their first meeting in the summer of 1968, but Clinton Heylin shows that it couldn’t possibly have happened before late 1969 or early 1970 (402). He gets important biographical information about MacLeish blatantly wrong, like identifying him as a West Point classmate of General MacArthur (that was actually Carl Sandburg). And he rips off lines from MacLeish’s poetry and prose and falsely presents them as snatches of dialogue between the elder statesman and the upstart crow.[1] Dylan’s depictions are completely inconsistent with contemporary accounts. In his letters, MacLeish insists that Dylan had lost focus and suffered from writer’s block; and in his autobiography, producer Stuart Ostrow describes Dylan as drunk, rude, lazy, and duplicitous throughout the ill-fated collaboration.[2] In short, the account in Chronicles is unreliable in terms of factual accuracy. As a work of crossroads mythology, however, the chapter is tremendously effective and revealing.

Dylan’s creative decision to roll back the initial meeting to 1968 has several effects. It locates the action in the most tumultuous year of Sixties unrest. Dylan describes this context in classic crossroads terminology as putting his soul at risk:

The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo were imprisoning my soul—nauseating me—civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions—the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling—the contra communes—the lying, noisy voices—the free love, the anti-money system movement—the whole shebang. (109)

Set against the general turmoil, Dylan also experienced a great personal loss with the death of his father in the summer of 1968. At the dawn of the “New Morning” chapter he recalls, “I had gone back to the town of my early years in a way I could never have imagined—to see my father laid to rest. Now there would be no way to say what I was never capable of saying before” (107). Abe Zimmerman’s untimely death at the age of 56 led his grieving son to conclude “that my father was the best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of me, but he didn’t understand me” (108). Dylan claims he returned home from the funeral to find an invitation letter waiting for him from MacLeish. This would have made Dylan 27 years old, the fateful year that claimed Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and others; the same age when the Devil’s bill came due for Robert Johnson. With chaos and death as his harbingers, enter the Father of Night.

Dylan draws a sharp contrast between humble Abe Zimmerman and the celebrated patrician poet who invites him for an artistic collaboration:

MacLeish, Poet Laureate of America—one of them. Carl Sandburg, poet of the prairie and the city, and Robert Frost, the poet of dark meditations were the others. . . . These three, the Yeats, Browning, and Shelley of the New World, were gigantic figures, had defined the landscape of twentieth-century America. They put everything in perspective. Even if you didn’t know their poems, you knew their names. (107)

Dylan’s reverence may be sincere, but from a literary perspective he is also at pains to establish the morality play parameters of the encounter. He depicts himself as an innocent, an amateur hack and overmatched schlemiel compared to MacLeish. There is doubtlessly a dimension of ethnic sensitivity and defensiveness on display here. Timothy Hampton recognizes this same dynamic at play in Chapter Two of Chronicles, “The Lost Land.” Dylan recalls his awe and envy in the presence of folk singer Mike Seeger. He reflects, “What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes, in his genetic makeup. Before he was even born, this music had to be in his blood” (71). According to Hampton,

Seeger’s parents were distinguished musicologists and composers; his father was a Harvard professor. Dylan paints him as an aristocrat. Like a member of the nobility in some ancient kingdom, Seeger embodies his greatness and identity. The music is essential to his very being, ‘in his blood.’ A member of the WASP elite, he has been raised in the culture of left-wing folk music. He is tradition, in several senses of the word. For Dylan, a provincial and a Jew, such ease and familiarity seem beyond reach, no less than nobility is beyond the reach of the peasant. (26)

Hampton’s interpretation is persuasive and applies equally well to Dylan’s depiction of MacLeish. The young poet respects his elder for his artistic integrity and significant accomplishments, but he is also acutely aware of (and intimidated by) his host’s aristocratic pedigree: “He had the aura of a governor, a ruler—every bit of him an officer—a gentleman of adventure who carried himself with the peculiar confidence of power bred of blood” (110).

Most of the elder poet’s erudite references sail over Dylan’s head, highlighting the chasm of wisdom and experience separating Dylan from his illustrious host. Young Goodman Dylan has lost his father and is seeking guidance from a mentor. He is the naïve and uninitiated Everyman. MacLeish possesses secret knowledge and power, and he uses it to lure Dylan down a potentially treacherous path, away from the storm shelter of family and back out into the maelstrom of a sordid and rapacious world. By dubbing MacLeish “the Poet Laureate of America,” he installs his elder as the embodiment of a nation then overtaken by forces of darkness.

The signs are subtle at first. Dylan describes MacLeish as “the poet of night stones and the quick earth” (107) and “the man of godless sands” (109). These are images taken from MacLeish’s own poetry, so Dylan the Chronicler has clearly done some homework. It is telling that he plucks out lines that connote dark magic. MacLeish needs somber songs for his latest play, and he thinks Dylan is the right man for the job. He suggests some diabolical titles, including “Red Hands,” “Lower World,” and “Father of Night.” Like any good Mephistopheles, MacLeish flatters and cajoles his mark. He tells the young poet how much he admires his work and how compatible he finds their views: “MacLeish tells me that he considers me a serious poet and that my work would be a touchstone for generations after me, that I was a postwar Iron Age poet but that I had seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era. He appreciated my songs because they involved themselves with society, that we had many traits and associations in common and that I didn’t care for things the way he didn’t care for them” (111-12). It’s a match made in Hell. Young Goodman Dylan catches a whiff of brimstone at the crossroads and hesitates to choose the path leading toward Scratch.

Dylan mentions the name of the play in passing and notes that it was based on a Stephen Vincent Benét story (108). But he never mentions the fact that the name “Scratch” is an alias for Satan, or that the play is about a man who is trying to win back his soul after selling it to Scratch. Dylan adopts the playwriting maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” He never directly announces the theme of confronting the Devil at the crossroads, but he dramatizes precisely that in scenes with MacLeish, where he “felt like two parts of my self were beginning to battle” (129). Young Goodman Dylan is flattered at first by the elder poet’s offer to collaborate, but he soon recoils from the temptation. In a particularly vivid passage, Dylan describes the apocalyptic vision of Scratch:

This play was dark, painted a world of paranoia, guilt and fear—it was all blacked out and met the atomic age head on, reeked of foul play. . . . The play spelled death for society with humanity lying facedown in its own blood. MacLeish’s play was delivering something beyond an apocalyptic message. Something like, man’s mission is to destroy the earth. MacLeish was signaling something through the flames. (113)

Dylan’s macabre distillation only tells half the story of Scratch. Yes, the Devil is given a platform in the play, and he lodges some scorching critiques of American hypocrisy, mendacity, violence, and ruthlessness. Old Scratch calls out Daniel Webster in particular, mocking him for selling out the abolitionist cause by accepting the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. Scratch delights in driving a wedge between the founding principles of Liberty and Union. However, it is important to note that Webster actually defeats the Devil in MacLeish’s play and wins back his client’s soul and his own. The play endorses Webster’s manifesto from the 1830 Webster-Hayne Debate: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” (Webster 144).[3] These are principles that Dylan supports, too. He declares, “Being born and raised in America, the country of freedom and independence, I had always cherished the values and ideals of equality and liberty. I was determined to raise my children with those ideals” (115). A fair reading of Scratch should place MacLeish and Dylan on the same side. So why does Young Goodman Dylan perceive MacLeish as an opponent and threat?

Throughout the chapter, Dylan stresses his fierce commitment to his new family. He had spent much of his youth running away from home, reinventing himself, rejecting his roots, crafting a mercurial persona always in flux which owed nothing to the bourgeois values hammered into him in Hibbing. But getting married, having kids, kicking his rock-n-roll habits, and settling down to clean country living had radically altered his perspective. As Dylan concedes in Chronicles, “Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me” (114). Abe Zimmerman’s death seemed to trigger an identity crisis in Dylan. Without his father around as embodiment of authority and model of assimilation, Dylan stopped rebelling and temporarily reinvented himself as his father’s son. It is shocking to read Dylan proclaim: “I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream” (117-18). How can the author of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” suddenly buy into this vanilla suburban fantasy, sleepwalking through the consumerist WASP American Dream? It is so transparently banal, and so contrary to the values he endorses in his adult life up to this point, that Dylan the Chronicler may be satirizing Dylan the Character here.

Nevertheless, the moral stakes are high, and Young Goodman Dylan sees them in black and white absolutes. In one of the most revealing passages of the chapter, he declares, “I wasn’t going to go deeper into the darkness for anybody. I was already living in the darkness. My family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all cost. That was where my dedication was, first, last and everything in-between. What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing” (123). The battle lines are drawn in stark terms: the family is light; the world is darkness; young Dylan embraces the light of family and rejects the darkness of the world. Simple. Way too simple. The 30-ish protagonist thinks he owes the world nothing, but his 60-ish chronicler knows better. MacLeish admired Dylan’s early work, and he beckoned him back out of exile. But Young Goodman Dylan shunned this calling in 1970. He conflated MacLeish’s offer with the pressures he felt from the public, the media, and fellow musicians to be their prophet and savior. He gave them his songs but they wanted his soul.

Or so the story goes. But even as Dylan delivers that narrative, he simultaneously undermines it. Take for instance the one time in Chronicles when Dylan quotes directly from Scratch. Having cast MacLeish in the role of the Devil trying to ensnare our young hero’s soul, Dylan selects a passage commenting upon the nature of evil. According to Dylan,

Scratch utters the lines, “I know there is evil in the world—essential evil, not the opposite of good or the defective of good but something to which good itself is an irrelevance—a fantasy. No one can live as long as I have, hear what I have heard and not know that. I know too—more precisely—I am ready to believe that there may be something in the world, someone, if you prefer—that purposes evil, that intends it.” (124)

Although he makes some minor errors in the transcription, Dylan’s quotation from the play is basically accurate (cf. Scratch 94-95), with one crucial exception: the lines he attributes to Scratch, the champion of darkness and despair, are in fact spoken by Daniel Webster, the defender of light and hope. This makes a big difference. The passage does not represent the Devil bragging about his evil stranglehold over the world; it is a rallying cry for the forces of light. But then Dylan inserts an ellipsis and continues on with the quotation: “‘ . . . powerful nations suddenly, without occasion, without apparent cause . . . decay. Their children turn against them. Their women lose their sense of being women. Their families disintegrate’” (124). Remarkably, none of this second half of the quotation appears in the play Scratch. My research so far has uncovered no source. I frankly don’t know where Dylan got this quotation. It smacks of the apocalyptic rhetoric of Hal Lindsey[4], but the passage may be entirely fabricated. In any case, it doesn’t come from Scratch. Why would Dylan insert this fake quotation? The invention is so egregious, and so easily detected by simply reading the play, I can only assume Dylan planted this false evidence knowing that it would be exposed as such. But to what end?

Dylan shares MacLeish’s concerns about America’s turmoil and what it may augur for the nation’s future. But look at the other worries voiced via ventriloquism in this fake quote: children rebelling, women getting lost, families falling apart. Young Goodman Dylan straightforwardly associates his family with all that was light, good, and true. Accordingly, he associates all rivals to the family as dark, evil, and false. Old Dylan has the advantage of hindsight, however. He can look back and see that his crossroads dilemmas are far more complicated, nuanced, and ambivalent. Black-and-white becomes tangled up in gray.

In one of the most telling passages of the “New Morning” chapter, Dylan admits that MacLeish was a truth teller. The elder poet was trying to communicate devastating truths, but the young family man was in no mood to hear them:

The play itself was conveying some devastating truth, but I was going to stay far away from that. Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house. Oedipus went looking for the truth and when he found it, it ruined him. It was a cruel horror of a joke. So much for the truth. I was gonna talk out of both sides of my mouth and what you heard depended on which side you were standing. If I ever did stumble on any truth, I was gonna sit on it and keep it down. (125-26)

The conventional binaries break down. MacLeish is on the side of darkness, but he is also on the side of truth. Dylan, on the other hand, stands in the light but sits on the truth. Oedipus pursued the truth no matter where it led, and it left him ruined. Young Goodman Dylan was determined not to make that same mistake, even if the cost was a temporary abdication of artistic responsibility by ignoring or suppressing the dark truths confronted in Scratch.

Dylan the Chronicler reinforces this view through his self-assessment of New Morning, a luminously titled album that signifies his choice of the light over the darkness but which he damns with faint praise. Dylan uses abandoned songs from the failed Scratch collaboration to form the nucleus of this 1970 album. He said no to MacLeish’s calling, but when producer Bob Johnston called to ask if Dylan wanted to make a new record, he answered yes. Apparently Young Goodman Dylan doesn’t see the outright contradiction here, but Old Dylan wants the reader to notice it: “Johnston asked over the phone if I was thinking about recording. Of course I was. As long as my records were still selling, why wouldn’t I be thinking of recording?” (134) Why wouldn’t he? Oh, yeah, because he’s just spent the whole chapter telling us how he’s trying to recede from the limelight into privacy and anonymity. Going back into the studio and releasing an album of original songs was an obvious stepping stone toward reengaging with the world. Either Dylan was too naïve at the time to see the gap between his rhetoric and his actions—or, what’s more likely, he was already beginning to feel an inner tug to return to public consciousness by sharing his art with the world. He takes steps toward that other road, the one he rejected with MacLeish, even as he continues telling himself that he is just a simple country husband and father now.

New Morning was a critical and commercial success, but Dylan himself doesn’t rate his effort so highly. These are modest songs, nothing as momentous and earth-shaking as his previous work, and he knows it. “Message songs? There weren’t any. Anybody listening for them would have to be disappointed” (138). Having produced previous works of genius, Dylan knows New Morning falls well short of that standard. “Maybe there were good songs in the grooves and maybe there weren’t—who knows? But they weren’t the kind where you hear an awful roaring in your head. I knew what those kind of songs were like and these weren’t them” (138). The album isn’t bad, and at times it’s pretty good. Something crucial is missing, though. As Paul Williams astutely observes, “New Morning is Bob Dylan pretending to be Bob Dylan, not in any obvious way . . . but in a very subtle way: he goes through all the motions and touches all the bases, but leaves out Ingredient X” (259-60). The first gentle breeze of inspiration may be stirring again, but Dylan admits that he is still a long way from the gale-force tempest: “It’s not like I hadn’t any talent, I just wasn’t feeling the full force of the wind. No stellar explosions. I was leaning against the console and listening to the playbacks. It sounded okay” (138). What Dylan leaves unsaid is that he would not feel the full force of those creative winds again until the marriage, for which he had put his career largely on hold, was falling apart. It may be the responsibility of a family man to head toward the light. It’s the responsibility of the artist, however, to descend into the darkness, navigate the lowlands of orphic mystery, confront inner demons and expose hard truths. Dylan isn’t ready to do that yet when MacLeish asks, and he is only capable of sidelong glances into the depths on New Morning. Still, certain signs suggest that he is beginning to sense the future direction of his art, after his season in the sun ends.

The dark linings can occasionally be glimpsed behind the silver-clouded songs on New Morning. A good example is “Time Passes Slowly.” Heylin cites this son as one of three (along with “New Morning” and “Father of Night”) which Dylan began composing for Scratch before withdrawing from the project (402). In its initial incarnation for the play, perhaps it was intended for Jabez Stone, the New Hampshire farmer who enjoys seven years of prosperity before Scratch returns to collect his soul. Within the context of New Morning, however, the song sounds like self-commentary on Dylan’s own rural exile and prolonged sabbatical from his artistic vocation. Everything seems idyllic at first:

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains

We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains

Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream

Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Pretty and peaceful, right? Yet the line about being “lost in a dream” hints at the illusory, ephemeral quality of such a life. It soon becomes clear that the wild fish isn’t the only one who has been captured, removed from the flow, suspended in time. How does it feel to be a stone that has stopped rolling? How does it feel to have found a home, no longer on your own, and yet still have no direction? It feels like this:

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town

Ain’t no reason to go to the fair

Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down

Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Sure, the singer has sloughed off the yoke of unwanted obligations; he no longer works on Maggie’s farm. But the idyllic is devolving into the merely idle, and Dylan knows that “Too much of nothing / Can make a man ill at ease.” In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks uses “Time Passes Slowly” to represent the deadly sin of sloth. He comments on the verse above: “This is obdurate, blockish, an evocation of a dangerous state of mind. Indifference can harden, before long, into something damnable” (126). Morality play conventions dictate that, in choosing the light over the darkness, Dylan selected the path toward salvation. However, this song sounds more like a seductively placid off-brand of damnation.

Dylan’s foreboding imagery is most insidious in the final verse, where the emphasis shifts from torpor to the inevitable passage of light into darkness and life into death:

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight

We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right

Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day

Time passes slowly and fades away

The singer must try awfully hard to remain on the so-called right path and to convince himself that he is happy with his new life. Summer isn’t over and the sun hasn’t set, but that emblematic rose at the end will not stay forever young. Laura Tenschert, host of the Definitely Dylan radio show and podcast, provocatively asks: “Is it time that’s fading like a wilting flower—or is it the singer, who somewhere in his subconscious might be feeling like he should be something else, maybe something more?” (Tenschert). In the alternate ending to an earlier version of “Time Passes Slowly” [included on Another Self Portrait (Bootleg Series Vol. 10)], Dylan paints his growing self-doubts in signature hues of light and darkness: “Like a cloud drifting over that covers the day / Time passes slowly then fades away.” As Tenschert perceptively observes of this conclusion, “He is literally throwing shade on the sunny disposition of the previous two verses” (Tenschert). The dissonant, contradictory, ambivalent undertone of “Time Passes Slowly” is representative of a subterranean current running throughout the album, troubling its deceptively bright tranquility. New Morning is not dark yet, but it’s getting there. The next intersection is already faintly visible on the horizon where Dylan will find himself again at the crossroads, forced to choose between staying or going, between devotion to family or sharing his unfettered art on the stages of the world.

Chapter Three of Chronicles ends by contrasting the fates of Dylan’s album and MacLeish’s play. The chronicler notes of New Morning, “All this was in what critics would later refer to as my ‘middle period’ and in many camps this record was referred to as a comeback album—and it was. It would be the first of many” (141). On the other hand, the play which first inspired those songs was ignored: “The MacLeish play Scratch opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre on May 6, 1971, and closed two days later on May 8” (141). A blues aficionado like Dylan surely knows that May 8th is Robert Johnson’s birthday, and that the patron saint of crossroads would have turned 60 the same day Scratch closed. The first time I read Chronicles as a memoir, this chapter’s conclusion felt like Dylan rubbing it in, as if to say, “See, Archie, my approach worked better than yours.” After coming to appreciate the “New Morning” chapter as a milestone in crossroads fiction, however, I now see my initial reaction was wrong. The salient point is that Dylan wasn’t ready to face dark truths and neither was the majority of the American public. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Dylan’s uplifting music was praised while MacLeish’s solemn play was panned. The relative success of New Morning compared to Scratch may constitute a minor victory of the light over the darkness, but that’s little consolation in the topsy-turvy moral universe of this chapter, since the victory of light goes hand in hand with the defeat of truth. Dylan the Chronicler might well feel embarrassed that a comparatively lightweight work like New Morning would be deemed successful while a mature work of devastatingly dark truths like Scratch folded within a week and was forgotten. Well, it had been forgotten, until Dylan situated it at the juncture of his own crossroads morality.

Works Cited

Cook, Edward M. “Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, and the ‘Borrowing’ Problem.” Ralph the Sacred River (June 3, 2010). Web. http://ralphriver.blogspot.com/2010/06/bob-dylan-carl-sandburg-and-problem.html. Accessed May 23, 2019.

Dylan, Bob. Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10. Columbia Records, 2013.

—. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

—. New Morning. Columbia Records, 1970.

—. “Time Passes Slowly.” 1970. Web. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/time-passes-slowly/. Accessed May 23, 2019.

—. “Too Much of Nothing.” 1967. Web. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/time-passes-slowly/. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Hampton, Timothy. Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work. Zone Books, 2019.

Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. Chicago Review Press, 2009.

Lindsey, Hal. The Late, Great Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1970.

—. Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1972.

MacLeish, Archibald. Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907 to 1982. Ed. R. H. Winnick. Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

—. Scratch. Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Ostrow, Stuart. Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ecco, 2003.

Tenschert, Laura. “Episode 11: Songs from the Threshold.” Definitely Dylan. Web. Accessed https://www.definitelydylan.com/listen/2018/3/25/episode-11-songs-from-the-threshold. April 25, 2019.

Warmuth, Scott. “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One.” New Haven Review (January 2008): 70-83.

Webster, Daniel. Speech of Mr. Webster, of Massachusetts [January 26 and 27, 1830]. The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Constitution: Selected Documents [1830]. Ed. Herman Belz. Liberty Fund, 2000.

Williams, Paul. Bob Dylan, Performing Artist: The Early Years (1960-1973). Omnibus Press, 1990.

[1] Scott Warmuth and Edward Cook have done more than any other investigators to discover and document the countless instances in Chronicles where Dylan alludes to, paraphrases, or outright plagiarizes passages from unacknowledged sources. For a distillation of Warmuth’s findings, including references to the MacLeish scenes (74-75), see his article “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One,” New Haven Review (January 2008): 70-83. For Cook’s specific references to the “New Morning” chapter, see his blogpost “Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, and the ‘Borrowing’ Problem,” Ralph the Sacred River (June 3, 2010).

[2] See Archibald MacLeish, Letter to Dorothy de Santillana (October 7, 1970), Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907 to 1982, ed. R. H. Winnick (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 430; and Stuart Ostrow, Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006), 59-62.

[3] In his Foreword to the published script of Scratch, MacLeish proposes that the tension between Liberty and Union continued to animate civic crises in contemporary America:

By 1970, however, though the Union still survived and slavery had—ostensibly—disappeared, it was no longer certain that the contradiction at the heart was healed. There were indications that it might have become more cancerous than in Webster’s day. Men on the contemporary left echoed the New England Abolitionists who put Liberty first and Union after, and were as ready as Abolitionists had ever been to bring the Republic down in the name of freedom. At the same time there were those on the contemporary right who repeated the Copperhead cries of Union first and Liberty nowhere, proposing to surrender human freedom itself to something they called law-and-order. (viii-ix)

These similarities inspired MacLeish to revisit his friend Stephen Vincent Benét’s mythical Webster with an eye and ear toward re-historicizing him in ways that spoke to the issues tearing the country apart in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

[4] During Dylan’s born-again Christian period, he was strongly influenced by the writings of Hal Lindsey. In The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), Lindsey interprets the Biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelations as prophecies that the end of times and the second coming of Christ are close at hand. Lindsey followed up this surprising best-seller with Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth (1972), where he identifies various infiltrations by the Father of Lies in contemporary society and proposes methods for combating the influence of the Devil.

“And I Crossed the Rubicon”: Another Classical Dylan

ARTICLE BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University

Abstract: Continuing and updating the observations in the author’s book Why Dylan Matters (2017), this article explores Bob Dylan’s engagement with the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans in the songs of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Both in the songs which imply such engagement (“Mother of Muses,” “Crossing the Rubicon”) and elsewhere on the album, classical antiquity remains a rich resource for the intertextuality of the songwriter. The Homeric poems, and Virgil’s Aeneid, are part of the fabric on which he weaves his own epic stories, which continue the process, begun on “Love and Theft”, weaving into the album the story of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the civil wars that followed his death on the Ides of March 44 BCE.

Keywords: Aeneas; Aeneid; Appian; assassination; Augustus Caesar; Caesar, Julius; Calliope; Cavafy, Constantine; Christ, Jesus; American Civil War; Roman civil war; classical world; Crassus, Marcus Licinius; cypress tree; Dante; Dawn; Dylan, Bob; Elysian Fields; Frankenstein; heroes; Homer; Ides of March; intertextuality; invocation of Muses; Johnson, Samuel; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; Lincoln, Abraham; Latin Club, Hibbing High School; Lucan; McKinley, William; memory; Milton, John; Mnemosyne; morality; molten gold; Muses; Nobel Prize Medal; Odyssey; Ovid; Red River; Rome; Rough and Rowdy Ways; Rubicon River; Saga, Junichi; Shakespeare, William; Shelley, Mary; St. Jerome; stream of consciousness; Timrod, Henry; transfiguration; Trojan women; Troy; Virgil; Warmuth, Scott

In Why Bob Dylan Matters (Dey Street Books 2017), following up on my 2007 article “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan” (Oral Tradition 22.1), I traced the ways Dylan’s lyrics, particularly those since he engaged the epic of Virgil in “Lonesome Day Blues,” actively incorporated the works and words of ancient Greek and Roman poetry. Specifically Virgil in that particular song, the Roman poet Ovid in Modern Times (2006), and Homeric epic, where western literature all comes from, in Tempest (2012). For convenience, and to remove any doubt, I here give a more extensive table than I included in the book, just for the song “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closer of Modern Times. Ovid’s lines are alongside the lines Dylan so brilliantly worked into the song from Peter Green’s 1994 Penguin translation of Poems of Exile:

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: Every nook and cranny has its tears         

Ovid, Tristia 1.3.24: every nook and corner had its tears

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: all my loyal and my much-loved companions

Ovid, Tristia 1.3.65: loyal and much loved companions           

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: I’ll make the most of one last extra hour                          

Ovid, Tristia 1.3.68: let me make the most of one last extra hour

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned       

Ovid, Tristia 5.7.63-4: I practice / terms long abandoned

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: They will tear your mind away from contemplation

Ovid, Tristia 5.7.66: tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: They approve of me and share my code                 

Ovid, Black Sea Letters 3.2.38: who approve, and share, your code

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?

Ovid, Tristia 1.2.12: Who says I can’t get heavenly aid / when a god’s angry with me?

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: They will jump on your misfortune when you’re down

Ovid, Tristia 5.8.3-5: Why jump / on misfortunes that you may well suffer yourself? / I’m down

As I also hope to have shown, the engagement with Rome in particular goes back well into the twentieth century, as evidenced by the lyrics of his songs from the very beginning: “Long Ago, Far Away” (1962), “Goin’ Back to Rome” (1963), possibly “My Back Pages” (1964, in draft titled “Ancient Memories”)[1], above all “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971), and “Changing of the Guards” (1978).[2]

The current contribution is meant as an update to those two earlier studies. Dylan’s astonishing new album shows that he has stayed with some of the ancients, drawing from them and from everything else in his arsenal in new ways in the process of producing an album that will take its place among the greatest he has given us. As with the book, here I explore just one part of his art, and in no way imply that Dylan is limited or bounded by his interest in antiquity. He contains multitudes; this album contains multitudes. That includes the classical world, evident in the lyrics of some of the new songs, so it may be useful to record my thoughts here.

There is an interesting quote in the last interview he gave, in 2015 with Robert Love, editor of AARP The Magazine:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.[3]

That 2015 interview accompanied the release of the first of the five discs of American standards, the album Shadows in the Night. Dylan in the interviews can be cryptic. But he is generally careful with his words, and there is a lot of Roman history and a lot of theology on Rough and Rowdy Ways, so it is worth recalling that interview here. He has also often let out relevant oblique and cryptic information in the interviews or press conferences that immediately precede release of albums, and this has included hints about the classical tradition from which he has been drawing—especially since the Rome press conference of 2001, where he hinted at the presence of Virgil on the upcoming “Love and Theft”: “when you walk around a town like this, you know that people were here before you, and they were probably on a much higher, grander level than any of us are” (see Thomas 2017, 76).

It was therefore of no small interest to be greeted, on the morning of June 12 of 2020, just over two weeks before the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways, by the first interview in five years, with historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley had given one of these album-connected interviews, printed in Rolling Stone on May 14, 2009, a couple of weeks after the release of Together Through Life. I had been particularly interested in that interview since it included some very specific mentions of classical authors, unprompted by Brinkley, who tells how he decided “to push him on the importance of Christian Scripture in his life.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get far with that one, since Dylan skillfully shifted the topic, keeping it well away from anything personal, particularly the events of 1979:

“Well sure,” he says, “that and those other first books I read were really biblical stuff. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. Those were the books that I remembered reading and finding religion in. Later on, I started reading over and over again Plutarch and his Roman Lives. And the writers Cicero, Tacitus and Marcus Aurelius . . . I like the morality thing. People talk about it all the time. Some say you can’t legislate morality. Well, maybe not. But morality has gotten kind of a bad rap. In Roman thought, morality is broken down into basically four things. Wisdom, Justice, Moderation and Courage . . . I don’t look at morality as a religious thing.

To the disappointment of those like myself, Brinkley didn’t follow up on these pretty surprising words, or at least he didn’t do so in print, but they are in line with the aspirations he would note six years later in 2015, to teach “Roman history or theology.” And they make sense in the context of Rough and Rowdy Ways, where morality in those manifestations—wisdom, justice, moderation and courage—are on full display, along with their opposites.

At the close of the interview from June 2020, Brinkley asks, “How is your health holding up? You seem to be fit as a fiddle. How do you keep mind and body working together in unison?” Dylan’s response may seem like a cliché (how do you respond to such questions?), but it is more than that:

Oh, that’s the big question, isn’t it? How does anybody do it? Your mind and body go hand in hand. There has to be some kind of agreement. I like to think of the mind as spirit and the body as substance. How do you integrate those two things, I have no idea. I just try to go on a straight line and stay on it, stay on the level.

A few days later we would hear the penultimate verse of the brilliant “Mother of Muses” and the suggestion in that song that it is his muse who has taught him these things:

Mother of muses unleash your wrath

Things I can’t see they’re blocking my path

Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate

Put me upright, make me walk straight

Forge my identity from the inside out

You know what I’m talking about

The morality that Dylan is here talking about is something his muse taught him, what he read and listened to from his early years. Or as he put it in the Nobel Lecture, talking about his school years: “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world . . . typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by” (pp. 5–6).

The 2009 interview was part of the context in which I came to the interview of June 12, 2020, particularly having myself explored Dylan’s connections with Greece and Rome in the interim. The interview is among the most interesting that Dylan has given in advance of a new release, with broad-ranging questions on the upcoming album. My interest is in an exchange towards the end. For whatever reason Brinkley departs from the subject at hand and asks a question that, wherever it actually came from, seems to come from nowhere:

BRINKLEY: Out of all your compositions, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has grown on me over the years. What made you bring it back to the forefront of recent concerts?

DYLAN: It’s grown on me as well. I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable. That’s what the song tries to say, and you’d have to put it in that context.

As in the 2009 interview, Brinkley shows no awareness of the classical material that Dylan himself brings up here—not the only lost opportunity in the interview—and, at least in what is printed from the actual two-hour interview, winds things up with a question about a bluegrass version of “Summer Days”[4] and a final “How is your health holding up?” He might have noted the unusual language in the assertion that the song has “something to do with the classical world.” Bob Dylan brought “When I Paint My Masterpiece” back into his concert setlists on July 27, 2018. His reference to that world—“so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain”—is not accidental. The song stayed there, almost always in sixth position for every regular concert he played between that night and, as of the current moment, his last concert at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., on December 8, 2019. Brinkley missed the reference, but Dylan knew those of us interested in the classical world would find bits of it in the album that was about to appear.

As noted, the classical world, the world of ancient Greece and Rome, is not the only world that Dylan enters into in Rough and Rowdy Ways, but it is fundamental to some songs on the album, and to its structure, as I showed it was in particular to many of the songs of Modern Times and Tempest. It is my intention here to update the findings of my book and to offer some guidance to that world in the hope of contributing to an understanding of this complex masterpiece. It is not the only world comprehended by the album, but it is one—of many—that may help in getting under the skin of what Dylan has given us.


Intertextuality and Stream of Consciousness

The intertextuality that has been a hallmark of Dylan’s song composition since the 1990s continues on the new album, but things have changed. In those earlier works we encounter direct verbatim quotation of Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Virgil’s Aeneid (“Love and Theft” 2001), from Henry Timrod’s poetry or the exile poems of Ovid (various songs on Modern Times, 2006), and from Homer’s Odyssey (also on Tempest, 2012). For the songs on these albums I defined intertextuality as

the process by which poets, songwriters, composers, or artists of any genre create new meaning through the creative reuse of texts, images, or sound . . . the most powerful and evocative instances of intertextuality enrich a work precisely because, when the reader or listener notices the layered text and recognizes what the artist is reusing, that recognition activates the context of the stolen object, thereby deepening meaning in the new text.[5]

Those intertexts or references were contained on songs whose titles gave no hint of what was waiting within: “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” “Pay in Blood,” “Scarlet Town,” and the rest. In one case, “Early Roman Kings” looked from the title as if it would give us Romulus and Remus, but the Roman Kings famously turned out to be a Latino gang from 1960s New York—although the song did give us ancient Roman kings “distributing the corn,” and Odysseus’s taunting of the Cyclops he has just blinded in a verbatim quote from the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey.[6]

The new album parts company with this practice. The classical world to which Dylan referred in the Brinkley interview is there, particularly in the title of two of the songs, “Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon.” But the methodology has changed somewhat, with borrowing by direct quotation replaced by a freer and less precise borrowing. The result is a riotous mixing of genres that gives many of the songs a sense of stream of consciousness. The mind of Bob Dylan, like that of Joyce in Ulysses, flits across a variety of cultural elements, including those from the worlds of the Greeks and Romans. This incongruous mixing is something that has always been in the art of Bob Dylan, sometimes for camouflage, sometimes just for the fun and poetry of it, Mack the Finger and Louie the King, John the Baptist and the Commander in Chief, Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame. But incongruity and genre mixing seem to reach a higher pitch on Rough and Rowdy Ways, with Scarface Pacino, the Trojan Women and Julius Caesar together in a heap. “My Own Version of You” may be a special case, as we’ll see.

For whatever reason the intertextuality of the new album has avoided much in the way of direct quotation, though the Shakespeare quotes are all generally direct. Otherwise, where direct quotation is found, it seems to have to do not so much with literary traditions as with musical ones. This mode of quotation is apparent in the album’s title, a Jimmie Rodgers song, along with his photo on the CD cover; the opening words of “Key West” as borrowed from “White House Blues”; a “world so badly bent” in “Crossing the Rubicon,” shared with “Dead Presidents” by Little Walter (1964); “the wings of a snow white dove” from “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” previously sung by Robert Duvall in the 1983 movie Tender Mercies (these noted by Scott Warmuth). Even the direct quote of Roman poet Juvenal in “Black Rider” is modified slightly.

Whether Dylan finally tired of all the uninformed charges of plagiarism, I cannot say. What is true is that this more oblique process is in line with the intertextual process of poets like Milton, Blake, or Eliot, for whom poetic appropriation consists of rephrasing, rather than quotation. This is a huge topic and one I cannot pursue here, though I hope to take it up in the future. For now it stands as an assertion. Now for some song-by-song observations on the classical presences of the album.


I Contain Multitudes

In general, the opening and closing frames of the album seem to be lacking in classical references. That is particularly true of the latter, since Dylan’s cultural focus in “Murder Most Foul,” the album’s closer, is exclusively on the music from around the time of the assassination. Or the songs that someone living then, someone like Bob Dylan, might have experienced, both at the time and in the years that followed. But the first song is a slight exception. The title of course comes from Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself” 51: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)”) and Dylan quotes closely as he fleshes out the title in the penultimate refrain of the song:

I’m a man of contradictions

I’m a man of many moods

I contain multitudes

But the Homeric hero familiar from those songs of Tempest is also present in this part of the song. We don’t need to go to the CliffsNotes to know that this verse describes Odysseus, there described as “a living series of contradictions, a much more complicated character than we would expect to find in the stereotypical epic hero.” Dylan may also in the last year or two have picked up Emily Wilson’s blockbuster 2018 translation of the Odyssey with its opening invitation to the Muse, “Tell me about a complicated man.” Even before the song list came out, with “Mother of Muses” pointing back to the Nobel Lecture and beyond, the Homeric hero—the ultimate man of contradictions—was present in these lines of the opening song. The words of this first song of the album (“I’m a man of contradictions”) look most immediately to Whitman’s poem, but they also take us to Dylan’s own words in that lecture, where he adopts the identity of the Homeric hero, clearly referring to himself after he sums up the experiences of Odysseus: “In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you.” And he had already “become Odysseus” in 2012, by way of the intertextual lyrics of Tempest and in his rewriting in performance of “Workingman’s Blues #2.”[7]


False Prophet

The classical presences in “False Prophet” need to be contextualized with allusions going back to “Love and Theft”, whose “Lonesome Day Blues” gave us the quote from Virgil’s Aeneid:

I’m gonna spare the defeated—I’m gonna speak to the crowd

I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd

I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered

I’m gonna tame the proud

I have argued that these presences involved Julius Caesar, his adoptive son, Octavian—the future Augustus, first of the Roman emperors—and the Roman civil wars that brought about the transition from republic to empire:

    • “I’ll establish my rule through civil war” (“Bye and Bye”)

    • “I’m here to create the new imperial empire” (“Honest with Me”)

    • “I’ll avenge my father’s death then I’ll step back” (“Ain’t Talkin’”)

    • “Brother rose up against brother / In every circumstance / They fought and slaughtered each other / In a deadly dance” (“Tempest”)

    • “In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes / Up on a hill a chilly wind blows” (“Scarlet Town”)

The tone also looks to the words of Augustus on his final will and record of his achievements, put up in bronze and marble throughout the empire:

Those who killed my father I drove into exile, by way of the courts, exacting vengeance for their crime . . . I did not accept permanent the consulship that was offered to me (Augustus, Res Gestae 2, 5)

This claim of Augustus relates to his defeats of Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium (31 BCE), and before that of Brutus and Cassius at the battle of Philippi (42 BCE), following their assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. From the perspective of Augustus, Actium and Philippi were acts of vengeance; from the perspective of Brutus, Cassius, Cicero and others, the battles spelled the final death throes of the Roman republic, as the young successor to Caesar established his rule through civil war. Vengeance is a common human phenomenon, but the vengeance of Augustus for the killing of his father is a theme already in Dylan, before this album which clearly continues the themes.

The voice of Augustus is heard on “False Prophet” at a couple of points:

Well I’m the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife . . .

I’m first among equals, second to none

The last of the best, you can bury the rest

Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold

Put ’em six feet under and I pray for their souls

Augustus was proud of his claim to be “first among equals” which upheld the fiction that the system, effectively a monarchy, was still a republic—those are hard to hold onto, then as now.[8] And this talk of burying ’em takes us back to “Pay in Blood,” its final verse with its allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the ominous and threatening tone brought back to life in “False Prophet”:

This is how I spend my days

I came to bury not to praise

I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone

I pay in blood but not my own

That is what happened across twenty years of the Roman civil war, initiated when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 BC: by the year 30, Augustus, “last of the best,” buried Antony, as Antony and he buried Brutus and Cassius, they all buried Julius Caesar, and Caesar buried Pompey.

Elsewhere in “False Prophet,” like Augustus, the singer has again come for vengeance:

I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said

I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

Some have also seen in the song the particularly grisly death of Marcus Licinius Crassus:

Put out your hand, there’s nothin’ to hold

Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold

At least two Roman generals were reported to have died by having their mouths stuffed with gold. The “Choking on Gold” section of Tom Holland’s popular book, Rubicon, tells of Manius Aquillius, the Roman general killed when Mithridates VI had molten gold poured down his throat in 88 BCE (Appian, Roman History 3.21.1). In 54 BCE, the defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus is said to have suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Parthians who, after they killed him, “poured molten gold into his mouth in mockery” of his obsession with wealth (Cassius Dio, Roman History 40.27). Dylan may have met the rich man, Crassus (a.k.a. Laurence Olivier) back in 1960, the villain in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.[9]


My Own Version of You

The singer is putting together his creation, with the components of the song reflecting the composite nature of his own version. A rather grisly opening suggestion of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, with the singer looking for “limbs and livers and brains and hearts,” and quoting Shakespeare (“Well, it must be ‘the winter of my discontent’” and later “Can you tell me what it means, ‘to be or not to be’”) has the singer drawing from a broad range of literary contexts high, low, religious and secular. The creation he will jump-start to life by sticking a knife in its ribs recalls not only the original rib-creation in Genesis, but also has bits of “Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando” (not the Godfather Pacino) and even Gulliver’s Travels (getting “gunpowder from ice”). Dylan’s new creation will be made to play piano like “Leon Russell, Liberace, and John the Apostle.” St. Peter and Jerome are there, though Jerome turns out to be Bo Diddley’s from the song “Bring it to Jerome”—written by his maracas player Jerome Green—rather than (or along with?) the fifth-century theologian and historian, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, who would become St Jerome. Putting these two culturally distinct Jeromes together, like turning John the Apostle into a piano player, is vintage Dylan. That more ancient Jerome translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin (the so-called “Vulgate”), before and after the year 400, long before the First Crusade of 1096–1099, making it accessible to the Latin-speaking West. Raphael Falco suggests that Jerome, addressing God, would have thought of his translation as “my own version of You.”

The song itself is a literary Frankenstein, a work made up through its references and allusions to some of the elements that have gone into Dylan’s songwriting. Others will identify many of these, including the line “I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind,” taken it seems from Mary Shelley’s actual novel.[10] The line that follows in the song (“I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind”) draws attention to Dylan’s humanistic aims, which I have noted elsewhere, and to which I will return.[11] The song is hugely important in Dylan’s self-revelation on this album, by which of course I mean the revelation of what has gone into his art. But in keeping with the theme of this article I limit myself to a couple of references, having to do with Julius Caesar and Virgil, the general and the poet from the first century BC, 400 years before Jerome, so “Long before the first Crusade / Way back ‘fore England or America were made”—words that come right after quoting from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dylan makes it clear he is going back to the classical world, a world in which he can “see the history of the whole human race.” First Virgil, Rome’s greatest poet,

Stand over there by the Cypress tree

Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery

This allusion is well concealed, looking at first glimpse as if it is quoting the title of Euripides’ anti-war play of 415 BC, The Trojan Women. But that is an old Dylan trick; remember “Early Roman Kings.” In fact it is Virgil’s epic Aeneid that is here put in play. The second book of that poem is narrated by the defeated Trojan prince Aeneas, who instructs his family where to meet as they leave the burning Troy: “Nearby an ancient cypress stands.” Aeneas a little later sees “Trojan boys / and trembling women stand in a long line.” That is where Dylan’s cypress tree and Trojan woman and children point us, to the same poem he quoted from in “Lonesome Day Blues”—the epic poem that will be part of the backdrop of “Mother of Muses.”

Then there is the case of Julius Caesar, who for this song has an air of authority:

I pick a number between one and two

And ask myself what would Julius Caesar do

In a few songs we will find out what Julius Caesar would do: he would and did cross the Rubicon. But I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of a different “JC” here, as in “What would Jesus do?” This is just the beginning of the merging of the two figures. “Mother of Muses” will bring it back home to Virgil.

Such merging once had a different name—transfiguration—the term Dylan would use to describe intertextuality, so applying a metaphor having to do with becoming someone else through allusion.[12] And Julius Caesar was one of the characters he had in mind, back in one of his more interesting interviews:

Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Winston Churchill. You just never know because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.

The transfiguration, with at least a few of these characters, continues on the new album, starting with Julius Caesar. That interview, “Bob Dylan Unleashed”[13] also seems to take on a new life as Dylan sings, “Mother of Muses, unleash your wrath.”


Black Rider

At one point I thought the song “Black Rider” had nothing to do with the classical world, and whatever it is about, that is still largely true. The song was also of interest because of the (for a Dylan song) unusual obscene line, “The size of your cock will get you nowhere.” You have to go back to the Basement Tapes to find even an approximation of that, and even there innuendo, and Dylan’s laughter, soften the effect: “Look, Missus Henry / There’s only so much I can do / Why don’t you look my way / An’ pump me a few?” Carl Wilson, reviewing the new album for Slate, even tried—with what authority we are not told—to talk us out of hearing the line as it was clearly intended: “Although I do have to disappoint some listeners and say that I’m pretty sure the line here many advance reviewers have heard as ‘the size of your cock will get you nowhere’ actually refers to ‘the size of your cockerel.’” What a cockerel would be doing in this song we are not told! The official lyrics remove any doubt. On June 22 Scott Warmuth showed us where this line of the song came from, the ninth satire of Juvenal (second century AD), the Lenny Bruce of the Roman world, who has the equivalent of a male prostitute,[14] not getting much business, lament, “The fantastic size of your cock will get you precisely nowhere.” Translations again are important.[15] Dylan found this line in Peter Green’s 1967 Penguin translation, the same translator whose Penguin translation of Ovid’s exile poems he had drawn from on Modern Times. Dylan had already used a line from Juvenal (“the pimp was already dismissing the girls”) in the song “Tempest” (“Davey the brothel keeper / Came out, dismissed his girls”). In another verse of that song the host was pouring brandy and “he stayed right to the end / He was the last to go”—just like Roman empress Messalina in Juvenal’s same poem, who stays on after the girls have been dismissed: “She stayed till the end, always the last to go.” So it is natural for Dylan to quote from Juvenal’s poem here, but worth noting that such verbatim quotation is an oddity for this album, whereas his other albums from this century all seemed to do so freely. The oddity also explains the unusual obscenity, reserved for the Black Rider, who is no friend of the singer.


Mother of Muses

In “The Lost Land,” the riveting second chapter of Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan writes of the early 60s, “Invoking the poetic muse was something I didn’t know about yet” (45). That had changed well before he wrote “Mother of Muses,” but this song shows Dylan in full control of the epic tradition of which he is the greatest contemporary inheritor. This is hardly surprising: the opening words of this song, “Mother of Muses sing for me,” pick up where Dylan left off, with the last words he published before releasing the new album, the final sentence of his brilliant Nobel Lecture of June 12, 2017: “I return once again to Homer, who says ‘Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story.’” The opening verse of the song is also the introduction to the rest of the album, whose next three increasingly longer songs deliver their epic messages of assassination (“Crossing the Rubicon” 7:23; “Key West” 9:34; “Murder Most Foul” 16:55). Some have found “Murder Most Foul” to be too long. I am not one of those, but here it is worth noting that is what epics do, they go on. As Samuel Johnson wrote in his Life of Milton, of Paradise Lost, greatest of English epic poems, “None ever wished it longer than it is.” And why “Mother of Muses” (Mnemosyne, or “Memory”) instead of one of the Muses, as in the Homeric poems and in the Nobel Lecture? Perhaps so he can keep the single Muse, Calliope (“beautiful voice”), muse of epic poetry, for the special role she plays in the second half of the song—where she is more than just a muse: “I’m in love with Calliope,” a brilliant touch that is pure Dylan in its mix of tradition and originality, a touch which turns the song into a love song, a song of longing for Calliope.

Calliope’s mother introduces the epic that characterizes this song’s first half and the three songs that close out the album. Her function is traditional: “Sing of honor and faith and glory be / Mother of Muses, sing for me . . . Sing of the heroes who stood alone / Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone.” The Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid, already put in play in “My Own Version of You,” provide examples of the invocation of the Muses as a prelude to memorializing the fighters of old. In the second book of the Iliad, the poet invokes the Muses for help in recalling the names of the Greek heroes who came to Troy: “Tell me now, you Muses, you who have your homes on Olympus . . . who were the leaders and lords of the Greeks” (2.484–7). And in Book 8 of the Odyssey, a number of whose lines ended up on the songs of Tempest, the bard Demodocus brings tears to Odysseus’ eyes by singing of the struggle at Troy so vivid in the hero’s memory: “the Muse inspired the bard / to sing the famous deeds of fighting heroes.”

Virgil, writing several centuries after Homer and in a different linguistic culture, adapted the Homeric catalog of ships to his Italian epic setting:

O goddesses (i.e. Muses), now open Helicon

And guide my song: what kings were spurred to war;

What squadrons filled the plain behind each chieftain;

With what heroes mothering Italy then flowered;

With what arms she caught fire. For goddesses,

You can remember and can recall; the slender

Breath of that fame can scarcely reach down to us

They can remember, because their mother, the mother of the Muses, is Mnemosyne, Greek for “Memory.” Virgil’s invocation underscores memory words (meministis “remember” . . . memorare “call to mind”). These are essential parts of poetry, as they are of song for Dylan—“memorize these lines, and remember these rhymes,” as the in-performance words of “Tangled Up in Blue” have it.

Virgil’s invocation precedes not just the almost two-hundred line catalog of Italian warriors, but, like “Mother of Muses,” the entire second half of the epic that follows. For Virgil, five more bloody books showing what it cost to build Rome; for Dylan, three songs of assassination—Caesar, McKinley, Kennedy. Dylan’s lines too, like those of Virgil, are traditional and original at the same time, rooted in their Homeric and Virgilian precedents. No catalogue of the Greek generals here though, no Italian warriors whose job it would be to “teach peace to the conquered and tame the proud.” Instead, in an updating of Homer and Virgil, Dylan invokes the heroes of modern history: “Sing of the Heroes who stood alone / Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone.” The next verse includes a list of those generals who fought for the freedoms that America enjoys, in the wars against the Confederacy and Nazi Germany:

Sing of Sherman—Montgomery and Scott

And of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought

Who cleared the path for Presley to sing

Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King

Who did what they did and then went on their way

Man, I could tell their stories all day

That is Dylan’s vision in this song. Whether Montgomery is James Montgomery, the abolitionist friend of John Brown, who led a troop of Black soldiers in the Civil War, or—more likely—Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, aka “Monty,” the British general of World War II (played by Michael Bates in the 1970 film Patton), we will never know. Those are the two wars of the song, though, the wars that let Elvis Presley sing the blues and Martin Luther King go to the mountain. Zhukov might seem an oddity, but Dylan is thinking not of the Cold War warrior of Stalin, but of the Russian general who fought the Germans at Leningrad and Stalingrad. As for the Civil War heroes, certainly it is welcome to see spelled out here some of the “names of the heroes I’s made to memorize,” as he put it almost sixty years ago in “With God on Our Side.” Mnemosyne did her job well! And now he’s with Calliope, who in the brilliant and haunting second half of this song has become his lover, joining him on his odyssey home, now much more than a muse, even if Dylan’s muses have always also been his lovers:

Take me to the river and release your charms

Let me lay down a while in your sweet lovin’ arms

Wake me—shake me—free me from sin

Make me invisible like the wind

Got a mind to ramble—got a mind to roam

I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow coming home

A final thought. The song that starts with Homer and his Muse, like the Nobel Lecture that the opening of this song also picks up on, seems to end, like the lecture, with its eye on Cavafy’s great poem, Ithaca.[16] That poem tells us not to hurry home, but likewise to ramble and roam in the odyssey which for Cavafy as for Dylan becomes life itself:

Keep Ithaca always in your mind.

Arriving there is what has been ordained for you

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts many years[17]

Or as Dylan puts it, “I’m slow coming home.”


Crossing the Rubicon

Whatever the various other meanings inherent in “Mother of Muses,” it is surely here functioning as Dylan’s epic invocation to the three songs that follow. So he moves to the closing epic triad of the album, each founded on political assassination: Julius Caesar (44 BCE), William McKinley (1901) and John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1963). Of the first of these, Carl Wilson put it one way in his review in Slate:

Crossing the Rubicon” is a diss-track/battle-rap/crawling-kingsnake number in which, like several times here, Dylan imagines himself as a strutting ancient Roman general, promising, “I’ll make your wife a widow / You’ll never see old age.

That is to tie down the stream of consciousness to one particular actor, though who the general would be is hard to say. Not Julius Caesar, since he was the one whose wife would be made a widow, five years after he crossed the Rubicon.

Everything about the slow blues, “Crossing the Rubicon,” catches the importance of that act, particularly the voice and drama of the refrain itself, along with the momentous lines that precede,[18] together making it clear the act is not just difficult, but life-changing. In crossing the river in northeastern Italy that was the boundary south of which he was not, under republican rules, to lead his army, Caesar effectively declared war on Rome. His motive was to avoid prosecution at the hands of his enemies in Rome. As Holland put it:

He finally caught up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon. There was a moment’s dreadful hesitation, and then he was crossing its swollen waters into Italy, towards Rome. No one could know at the time, but 460 years of the free Republic were being brought to an end.

The historian Appian, writing in Greek 200 years after the events, records an anecdote, beyond the familiar “the die is cast,” that catches the moment of the crossing. Caesar is said to have stopped before the stream going back and forth in his mind pondering the results of a crossing: “My friends, if I do not make this crossing, it will be the beginning of troubles for me; if I do make it, it will be the beginning of troubles for the whole world.” Then speaking like a man inspired, he surged across, uttering the familiar phrase, “Let the die be cast.” The singer seems to have things on his mind in the first of the epic poems he sings after seeking inspiration from the mother of the Muses:

The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows

Redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose

Three miles north of purgatory—one step from the great beyond

I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon

Again, the mixing and stream of consciousness that is a mark of the album. Dylan seems aware of the lines of the Latin poet Lucan, forced by emperor Nero to commit suicide but not before writing a poem in which the Caesars, among whom Nero, in the century after Julius Caesar’s death, would be numbered:

The bright red river Rubicon flows from modest spring through the bottom of a valley, valleys, dividing Gaul from Italian lands (Lucan, Pharsalia 1.213–14)

Why a red river? Commentators on Lucan in antiquity have thought because of the red gravel in the river bed, but Lucan is a poet, and he is playing with etymologies, real or otherwise (in Latin rubeo = “be red”), pointing of the rivers of the Mediterranean world that will be turned red with the blood of civil war once the Rubicon is crossed, where through that etymology the Rubicon pays in blood. Dylan, who has I think read his Lucan, picks up on all of this: “redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose.” You won’t find red rivers in Dylan without the memory of girls who come from their shores, and the official lyrics specify that the “Rubicon is the Red River,” in caps, and not a red river or the red river (all italics mine). Perhaps the singer still has Calliope on his mind even as he crosses the Rubicon, alluding in the process to “the one that I’ll always adore” from “Red River Shore,” the brilliant outtake from Time Out of Mind, to which the new album takes us back in so many ways. And finally there is the film Red River, which Bob Zimmerman probably saw as a boy, if not when it came out in 1948 then when it reran in one of the Hibbing theaters he regularly frequented.

Caesar also resembles Christ or some sort of Christ or Christian figure, both in the second verse (“I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon”), and in the sixth: “I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.” By vote of the Senate, Julius Caesar will, after his death, become a god, the “divine Caesar.” Jesus on the cross is physically as in other ways between heaven and earth. Also in words from the fifth verse, “I poured the cup, I passed it along and I crossed the Rubicon,” it is hard not to hear the words of Jesus from Matthew 26:39, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But the cups poured in Gethsemane and at the Rubicon were not passed on. The genre-mixing that is effected by this loose and free form of intertextuality conflates Caesar and Christ, each headed home, for the “crooked knives” of political assassination and for the cross on Calvary.


The Ides of March

“Crossing the Rubicon” is one of those songs that begins, or more or less begins, with the naming of a day. “Murder Most Foul” would not name the 22nd, since everybody knows the day, but it was similar: “’Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63.” Elsewhere the date can be somewhat obscure, as at the beginning of “Isis”: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May.” This is a feature of ballad, which naturally enough situates things in time or place commemorating battles or other historical events. So what to do with the beginning of this song? “I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year.” Not very helpful, but as always with detail in Dylan, there is a reason, here making us confront the puzzle. April was for T. S. Eliot the “cruelest” month, but it could also be the most dangerous, if you happened to be Calvin, Blake, or Wilson, or the rich man Mr. Astor, the characters who went down with the Titanic on that night to remember, as Dylan told us in the second verse of the epic “Tempest” from 2012:

’Twas the fourteen [sic] day of April

Over the waves she rode

Sailing into tomorrow

To a golden age foretold

So April 14 might seem like a good candidate, even more so since on the evening of that same day, April 14 of 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot, dying the following day, on April 15. But the 14th of other months are also available. And if you were President McKinley, whom we meet at the beginning of the next song in Dylan’s adaptation of the old bluegrass “White House Blues” (“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled / Doctor said ‘McKinley, death is on the wall’”), then September 14 was pretty dangerous, the day he died after being shot eight days earlier.

But the 14th was also the eve of what for Julius Caesar was emphatically the most dangerous month, March, whose Ides of course fell on the next day, his death day, as was the 15th of the month for Lincoln. That’s where we could imagine being in the non-linear world of the next lines of the poem:

I got up early so I could greet the goddess of the Dawn

I painted my wagon—I abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon

Getting up early and greeting the goddess of the Dawn (Eōs in Greek, Aurora in Latin) is something Caesar shares with Odysseus, for instance in Odyssey 5, the book that lends many lines to the songs of Tempest: “When young Dawn with her rose-red [those colors again] fingers shone once more / Odysseus quickly dressed himself.” This forms a frame to the song with the last line of the song, “I lit the torch and looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon”—Eōs being the word both for the east and dawn: “east where the Goddess Dawn, forever young, has her home” (Odyssey 12).

And as for “I abandoned all hope,” we had already met the fleet footed guides of the Underworld back in “False Prophet,” so no surprise here to meet the Italian poet from the thirteenth century. With him come the words, “abandoned all hope,” from the third line of the third verse of the third canto of the Inferno, first of the three works of the Divine Comedy, the words painted above the entrance to Dante’s “Lasciate ogni speranza” (“Abandon all hope you who enter here”). The mixing of Dante with reference to the 1951 Lerner and Loewe musical, Paint Your Wagon, best known from the 1969 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, is par for the course on this album. The number three stays in the next line, since that is where Dylan’s Caesar crosses the Rubicon: “Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond”—a place that feels like Dante again.

Bob Dylan has had connections to Julius Caesar and his death on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, for a very long time, even from before he was Bob Dylan. The evening of Friday April 5, 1957, in the little Minnesota town of Hibbing found the Shadow Blasters, the band Bob Zimmerman had put together the previous fall, performing at a talent show at Hibbing High School, the first of his performances. Whether or not his vigorous, Little Richard-style piano playing broke a pedal on the instrument cannot be known for sure, but the sophomore certainly made his mark. The school paper, the Hibbing Hi Times, had reported a less spectacular event three weeks earlier:

Societas Latina members today published a paper to celebrate the death of Caesar on the Ides of March (March 15). The paper included Roman history, an original poem, cartoons, and many other items with a Roman background.

Dylan was a member of that Latin Club (Societas Latina), and whatever his contribution to the Ides of March celebration, we may safely assume that he knew from an early age why the day mattered. That was the consequence of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon five years earlier.


Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

There is a lot of death in Rough and Rowdy Ways, particularly in the epic trilogy that closes it out. Death comes for Caesar by the assassins’ knives, crooked or otherwise. Death appears on the wall for McKinley. And above all, death for President Kennedy—“led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb” as they “blew off his head,” had him killed “like a human sacrifice” and “heading straight on into the afterlife”—in a song that makes us revisit it again and again, not quite the thirty-three times that the singer has watched Abraham Zapruder’s filming of the event, but enough to bring the horror of that day back home to anyone old enough to remember it. And of course death is what epic traffics in. But the middle song of the three gives us a brighter glimpse of the afterlife, at least for those who make it to Key West, where death is not the end: “Key West is the place to be / If you’re lookin’ for immortality.”

In “Bob Dylan: Aeneas Visits Key West,” on the extensive and almost always interesting website “Untold Dylan,” Larry Fyffe suggests[19]

the song is figuratively transformed into the Underworld of Greek/Roman mythology, and the singer/songwriter takes on the persona of Virgil’s Aeneas:

Key West is under the sun, under the radar, under the gun

You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right

Feel the sun on your skin, and the healing virtues of the wind

Key West, Key West is the land of light

Some may find the evidence he adduces slight, in these lines and in the instructions his guide the Sibyl gives to Aeneas: “the regions to the left . . . punished the wicked for their misdeeds. But the road to the right led to the Elysian Field.” However this detail and other aspects of the song indeed resonate with Virgil’s account of Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld in Aeneid 6, and ending up in the magical Elysium, where in Robert Fagles’ translation,

They gained the land of joy, the fresh green fields,

The Fortunate Groves where the blessed make their homes.

Here a freer air, a dazzling radiance clothes the fields

And the spirits possess their own sun, their own stars[.]

As with the Elysian Fields, or the parallel ancient tradition of the Isles of the Blessed, likewise immune to the troubles of the world, Key West is a land the poetic imagination creates, to evade the strife and destiny of the mortal human condition, a place that is “fine and fair,” “truly blessed,” where “winter . . . is an unknown thing,” the road to “innocence and purity,” a “paradise divine,” to quote from throughout the song. It is where immortality is to be found, but only for some.

Back in “My Own Version of You” the singer had quoted Virgil’s Aeneas as he prepares to move his people out of the burning Troy: “Stand over there by the Cypress tree / Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery.” Some resisters may also want to put this down to coincidence, but Dylan’s intertextuality is clear, instructions to stand by a specific cypress tree, and the presence of Trojan women and children being sold into slavery. That is a non-Homeric moment that happens as Troy falls and only in the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid. “My Own Version of You” is a sort of glossary and concordance for the album, its Frankenstein elements, a.k.a. intertextualities, the “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” that are the “necessary body parts” he will graft onto a number of the album’s songs, “Key West” not least.

To return to the Elysian Fields, Bob Dylan has stayed here before, not quite a thousand nights ago, and he takes us back with deliberate allusivity. On April 1, 2017, where his guide was neither the Sibyl nor Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, those “fleet footed guides from the Underworld” of “False Prophet,” but the late Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, who showed Dylan the image of the Nobel Prize Medal she and the other members of the Academy presented to him on that day. For almost six months this group, having announced their righteous decision of October 13 of the previous year, had been buffeted by the winds of ignorance and limited vision. Now was the time for them to celebrate with their new laureate: nunc est bibendum. As she recalled, and as I have reported before:[20]

Spirits were high. Champagne was had. Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes, loosely translated as “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found artistry.”

That Virgilian line, the one on the medal—the only illustration in my book, I note—comes from the same description of the poets now in the Elysian Fields, described in the line that follows as ”those we remember well for the good they did mankind.” Or in the words of Dylan learning Sanskrit and Arabic (not Greek and Latin?) in the same “My Own Version of You”: “I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind.”

Virgil was himself something of a philosopher pirate, or at least a pirate philosopher. For his Elysian Fields, he raided the eschatological thinking he found in Platonic philosophy, Eleusinian, Orphic, and Jewish mystery writings, all available to him in Greek. Christianity would provide a different solution, but the mind of Virgil, who died in 19 BCE, created its own possibilities, its own intertextually created version of the afterlife. In his account, the souls of the dead will revisit the world after a thousand years, years which “cleanse our hard, inveterate stains and leave us clear / ethereal sense, the eternal breath of fire purged and pure” (6.863–640). Dylan the philosopher pirate has in turn stolen these ideas and put them into his own version, the land he creates in “Key West”, the “gateway key / To innocence and purity.”

The song, already taking its place as a masterpiece among the very greatest he has written, is a testament to Dylan’s immortality, with Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac, to be sure, but also with Homer, Virgil and Dante, with a final nod to Milton. So “If you’re lookin’ for immortality / Key West is paradise divine.” Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy, both in that phrase. Once upon a time, 40 years ago, Bob Dylan struggled with perfecting another masterpiece, now available as more than one masterpiece in bootlegged and official versions. In “Caribbean Wind,” set somewhere where that wind blows “from Nassau to Mexico” and not so far from the real Key West, Dylan was “playing a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy.” Milton was there with Dante, by way of the elusive “rose of Sharon from Paradise Lost.” They have joined the classical poets in the mind of Bob Dylan. Paradise lost or paradise regained, on the horizon line of Key West, it doesn’t much matter. “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there.” So ends a song that starts with a 1901 presidential assassination—“McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled”—an old, though not-so-old folk song, recorded by Charlie Poole in 1926, and rewritten and recorded by bluegrass artist Bill Monroe in 1954. Old, new, high, low, all meaningless terms for an art that refuses to be tied down: “Don’t make a bit of difference, don’t see why it should.”

“Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain.” So said Dylan to Douglas Brinkley of the classical world that he saw behind “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the song he wrote 50 years ago. The Muses live on mountains, and that is where you get inspiration, whether you are Moses, Milton, or Martin Luther King. The Muses live on Mt Helicon, sometimes on Parnassus, and that is where the Greeks and Romans visited them. It is good to see Bob Dylan still spends time on those particular mountains, to hear how he has brought down from them new songs, handed to him by Calliope and her mother, and transfigured with much else into this remarkable new album.

With thanks for valuable suggestions and corrections to the editors, to friends and colleagues in Dylan, old and new, Terry Gans, John Henderson, Andrew Muir and Marco Zoppas, to Harvard students past and present who know their Dylan, Vivian Jin, Sam Puopolo, Ben Roy, and Joan Thomas, none of whom are responsible for remaining deficiencies.

[1] I have long wondered whether the “corpse evangelists” of this song, for whom the girls are “memorizing politics of ancient history,” along with the overly serious “self-ordained professor’s tongue,” not to mention the mongrel dogs who teach, might all have to do with a less-than-happy memory—by 1964 one of his “ancient memories”—of something actually experienced in a Minneapolis classroom four years earlier. Stranger things have happened.

[2] See Thomas, 2017, 80–84, on the presence of Virgil’s fourth, messianic Eclogue in drafts of “Changing of the Guards.”

[3] “A Man of Strong Opinions”: https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/music/info-2015/bob-dylan-photos.html#slide13

[4] This question seemed similarly random, and here too part of Dylan’s response was tantalizing. After talking about why he and his band don’t do bluegrass (as if they might!), he says, “I listen to Bill Monroe a lot, but I more or less stick to what I can do best.” Would that include Monroe’s version of the song “White House Blues” (“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled / Doc said, ‘McKinley I can’t find the cause’”) on the assassination of McKinley, with which “Key West” will begin?

[5] Thomas, 2017, 131–32.

[6] Thomas, 2017, 89–91.

[7] Thomas, 2017, 254–68 “Dylan Becomes Odysseus”

[8] Augustus, Res Gestae 34.3: “I excelled everyone in influence, but I had no more power than my other colleagues in each office.”

[9] See Thomas, 2017, 54 for the likelihood of this encounter.

[10] Frankenstein, Ch. 6 (“The Persian, Arabic, and Sanscrit languages engaged his attention”).

[11] See Thomas, 2017, 17.

[12] See Thomas, 2017, 119–27, “The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan”; also 164–67

[13] Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone September 27, 2012

[14] Or, to quote Susanna Braund’s description in the Loeb Classical Library Juvenal (p. 348), “The client in this poem is Naevolus (‘Mr. Warty’), a man who has interpreted his duties rather broadly to include satisfying the patron’s desire to be penetrated in anal intercourse, having sex with the patron’s wife at the patron’s request, and fathering the patron’s children.” This situation could also inform another striking line in “Black Rider,” though the line does not seem specifically to come from Juvenal: “Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine.”

[15] See Thomas 2017, 239, on the importance of the specific translation in activating intertextuality.

[16] See Thomas, 2017, 262–63 for the echoes of Cavafy’s poem in Dylan’s lecture.

[17] Cavafy, Ithaca (tr. Theoharis)

[18] These are worth isolating: “I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope”; “I prayed to the cross, I kissed the girls”; “I embraced my love, put down my hair”; “I pawned my watch, I paid my debts”; “I poured the cup, I passed it along”; “I stood between heaven and earth”; “I’ll strap my belt, I’ll button my coat”; “I turned the key and broke it off”; “I lit the torch, I looked to the east.” Each of them suggests a decisive situation, its drama only heightened by the final “And I crossed the Rubicon.”

[19] https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/15749

[20] Thomas, 2017, 12.

Beacon and Black Hole: Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan and Two Songs of Parting

ARTICLE BY Neil Corcoran, University of Liverpool

Abstract: This article examines Suze Rotolo’s account in her autobiography of her early life and relationship with Dylan. It takes note of her provocative suggestion that some of his songs were self-interested, one-sided accounts designed to take their place in an ongoing dialogue with both Rotolo herself and those close to her. The article looks closely at “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Ballad in Plain D” to determine how “interested” the songs are and how fully they constitute examples of Dylan’s complex revisions of traditional ballad form. It makes an evaluative judgement about their merits, proposing that Dylan’s true strengths as writer and singer were never likely to reside in any “confessional” form but always to take their place as essentially “modernist” modes of dramatized obliquity; and it takes stock of variant performances.

Keywords: Rotolo, ballad, confessional, modernist, performance.

Bob Dylan’s one-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo published her autobiography, A Freewheelin’ Time, in 2008, three years before her death; and, although generally admired, it wasn’t really given its due in the reviews. Although it doesn’t quite equal them in quality, it’s one of those books, like Joe LeSueur’s Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara and Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street, in which the writer’s close but secondary status in relation to a figure of genius provides a revelatory foil to the object on display. The book strongly suggests why Dylan would have been fascinated by Rotolo, beyond her unconventional, warm beauty, which he celebrates in his own quasi-autobiography, Chronicles (2004). As much is obvious from the famous cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), where photographer Don Hunstein shows the pair huddled against the winter on Jones Street in New York City. From an Italian-American communist background in New York, Rotolo describes her escape, while still a teenager, from an alcoholic widowed mother and a coercive sister. Living alone in Greenwich Village at the age of seventeen, she meets Dylan, then twenty, in the summer of 1961. They stayed together for three years, more or less, those of his earliest, intensely productive creativity and first fame.

Rotolo is fascinating for her background and her ambivalent break with it, and she describes in some depth the range of her political interests and affiliations. These include a trip to Cuba reported in the national press (and, we have learned recently in Truthout, scrutinized in the file kept on her by the FBI). But the book focuses, as its title implies, on her relationship with Dylan and its context in the cultural life of the Village, in which she was a keen participant. She writes spiritedly, her style taking a particular edge from her acerbic detailing of what seems the reflex misogyny of the time. Her feminism is at first instinctive, and then principled, as she educates herself in the ways in which women were conditioned by men in the bohemian New York of the 1960s; her self-education is the real theme of her book. She regrets her lack of formal tertiary education, a consequence of the unavailability of funding. We must speculate on what her attitude might have been toward the middle-class Dylan’s own casual abandonment of opportunity when, still in his freshman year, he quit the University of Minnesota for the streets and folk clubs of New York City.

Recalling the difficulties of her life with Dylan, Rotolo is reticent and unspecific, and the book offers few opportunities to the prurient; but she still makes it plain that she was lied to and manipulated, sometimes with the connivance of male friends or hangers-on. She remains resilient, however, rather than vengeful, and she testifies to her continued admiration for Dylan’s genius and staying power. Citing Kurosawa’s Rashomon, she acknowledges the relativity of truth and therefore the partiality of her own position; this self-critical misgiving is one of the reasons her book does in the main ring true.

Even so, it seems there’s another story inscribed between the lines of the one Rotolo tells. It surfaces when she describes her creativity in theater, clothes design, painting and book-making in the 1960s and thereafter. Although we don’t doubt her talents, we might wonder whether their relative lack of recognition would have made it especially difficult for her to experience the dynamo of immediately celebrated creativity that Dylan was almost as soon as he started off in New York. It surfaces, too, when she says that she once changed her name to “Justine” after the eponymous heroine of the first volume of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet; then, she discovers in the title and subject of a Picasso collage, Glass and Bottle of Suze, which names a French liqueur, the replacement for what she considered the dull birth name “Susan.” Although Rotolo doesn’t say so, both of these instances parallel Dylan’s own change from his native “Zimmerman” which, to her humiliation, Rotolo discovers only accidentally. And the occluded narrative surfaces when she insists on the political and cultural benefits she brought him:

Growing up in a politically conscious home during the Cold War and under McCarthyism, I had struggled through the issues of Communism, socialism, and the American way. I threw those interests out to Bob. I was exposed to a lot more than a kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, was, especially with my upbringing amid books and music and interesting, albeit difficult, people. And I was also from New York City. No contest there. (Freewheelin’ Time 137)

Well, maybe not; but the metropolitan condescension suggests there was a contest somewhere. “You sound like a hillbilly, we want folksingers here,” this passage seems to say, as Dylan’s Greenwich Village nightclub owner berates the singer in “Talkin’ New York,” Dylan’s sardonic account of his early days in the city. It’s not self-evident that growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota automatically cuts one off from books and music and interesting, albeit difficult people. The impact of New York City—and of Rotolo herself—on Dylan is undeniable; but still, Robert Zimmerman was able to pluck a great deal from the Minnesotan air—literally, since much of it came to him from the numerous local radio stations which he could tune in to on the Midwestern airwaves. The resentment implies that Rotolo was discontented with her secondary status. Rotolo displays an unrelaxed, even prickly edginess, and her account of emotional and psychological damage places the blame, in at least one respect, on Dylan’s art as well as his behavior.

The core of A Freewheelin’ Time is Rotolo’s account of her protracted split with Dylan and her consequent nervous breakdown. On her first attempt to leave him, in June 1962, she went to Perugia and stayed several months studying art history, funded by her mother’s new partner in what was, she believed, a mutual attempt to extricate her from Dylan’s grasp. She tells us that she watched Dylan watching her as her ship left New York and, tantalizingly, that elements of his letters to her contained what later became song lyrics. As soon as she got to Perugia she read—twice—Francoise Gilot’s recently published Life with Picasso:

I expected to learn about Picasso, an artist I loved, but instead the book turned into something entirely different. It made me think about Bob. . . . I felt I was reading a book of revelations, lessons, warnings. Even though Picasso was a much older man than Bob and had experienced a lot more, their personalities were so similar it was astounding. . . . Picasso did as he pleased, not worrying about the consequences for the people around him or the effect his actions had on them. He took no responsibility, clarified nothing, came to no decisions and did nothing that would have made it possible or easier for the various women he was involved with to leave him and get on with their lives. He was a magnet, and the force field surrounding him was so strong it was not easy to pull away. . . . His art was the main function of his life. At the end of his arm was a brush. (Freewheelin’ Time 181-82)

At the end of Dylan’s arm, we must assume, was a pen or a typewriter—and, no doubt, a guitar, that more sociable and erotically advantageous instrument of creativity. Dylan bewildered Rotolo, she says, by being “a beacon, a lighthouse [and] also a black hole.” Having said so much, she need hardly say more, but she does say one other thing. She says that some of the songs he wrote and performed at the time were vehicles of recrimination, soliciting sympathy as the rejected lover while evading culpability. This made life extremely difficult for her when she did return to the Village and, for a while, to Dylan. Dylan’s art at this time, she claims, is directed to a coterie and interested. It doesn’t just make a lover’s complaint; it pursues a campaign.

There’s something she doesn’t say, though, or says so late into her book that it’s easy to miss unless you already know it. In Perugia she met the man she was to marry some years later, Enzo Bartoccioli. Rotolo doesn’t name him, and her married life forms no part of her book, but we know that Dylan knew about him because one of the “poems” in the version of the sequence “Some Other Kinds of Songs,” which forms the liner notes to the American issue of Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), reprinted as late as 1973 in his collection Writings and Drawings, tells us so in terms so vehement as to make its past-habitual tense suspect:

i used t’ hate enzo

i used t’ hate him

so much that i could’ve killed him …

my beloved one met him

in a far-off land

an’ she stayed longer there

because of him (Writings and Drawings 146)

The anger, in lines that have none of the poetry of the songs, is matched by envy—”I wanted t’ be like him so much / that I ached”—and both make Dylan appear vulnerable. His knowledge of Bartoccioli doesn’t excuse his interested use of his own work, but it does cast it in a different light. Jealousy is not an equable emotion; and being the agent of it in others, as Dylan undoubtedly was, is no prophylactic against being the victim of it oneself.


This is all of interest, but particularly so because “Boots of Spanish Leather” on The Times They Are A-Changin’, released in 1963, and the fascinating but flawed “Ballad in Plain D” on the album which succeeded it a year later, Another Side of Bob Dylan, both derive from the prolonged ending of the relationship. Both are contemporary variations on traditional ballad form, which has been sustaining for Dylan across his career; both reveal things about the ways experience becomes song in Dylan; and they contrast in their registers of interest as well as in their degrees of success, while also reminding us how many of Dylan’s most complex songs about personal relationships are songs of parting, of the pathos of the hapless and the unavailing.

The first-person narrative of “Ballad in Plain D” recounts the course of a relationship now gone irretrievably wrong—largely because of the jealous interference of the lover’s mother and elder “parasite” sister. The singer’s considerable venom is directed especially against the sister whose motive appears to be her own emotional insufficiency. The song climaxes, once the “tombstones of damage” have been raised in the graveyard of the affair, with a vicious shouting match between narrator and sister “beneath a bare lightbulb”—a harsh light surely figurative as well as literal, as what appears to be a Greenwich Village apartment becomes also a form of hell on earth. After this episode, the narrator runs into the night “leaving all of love’s ashes behind [him].” The extreme emotional intensity of the song then culminates in two final verses of contemplation and valediction.

These circumstances directly reflect the biographical details Rotolo offers in A Freewheelin’ Time. Even so, the song is indebted to an Anglo-Scots ballad dating probably to the late seventeenth century. Dylan’s first line (“I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze”) and the song’s narrative structure echo those of the ballad sometimes known as “The False Bride.” Written in the person of a jilted lover, the song appeared in the 1960s repertoires of both Ewan McColl and Pete Seeger, which is almost certainly how Dylan first heard it:

I once loved a lass and I loved her so well

I hated all others that spoke of her ill

And now she’s rewarded me well for my love

She’s gone to be wed to another.

Dylan transposes his own experience into the ballad’s terms. He’s the one spoken of “ill”—not by “all others” or by the “lass,” but by her mother and sister. The vitriol directed against them is accompanied, though, by self-reproach and what seems like—and in Dylan’s superb rendition sounds like—genuinely heartfelt lament for the loss. Dylan doesn’t often do apology, but he gets close here when he sings, “The words to say I’m sorry, I haven’t found yet.” If he hasn’t yet found the words, he’s at least found the words to say he hasn’t yet found the words, which acknowledges both guilt and the obligation to avoid cliché.

The song’s regret, sorrow and tenderness are piercing, but in other respects its linguistic and emotional registers are insecure. With the original ballad no doubt haunting his ear, Dylan attempts to meld archaic and contemporary usage, but elevated expressions like “I courted her proudly” consort oddly with the vernacular of the sister’s shrill “’Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!’” The opening analogies for the lover—”With the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn”—are infantilizing: two cute baby animals make one analogizing line into a condescending menagerie. Some metaphors, notably that of the sixth verse (“With unseen consciousness, I possessed in my grip / A magnificent mantelpiece, though its heart being chipped”), are inept, even juvenile; and so is a certain melodramatic heightening of the situation—as when the lovers are perceived as “the king and the queen,” who “tumble all down into pieces,” as parts of a chess set: but the metaphor isn’t sustained sufficiently to carry much expressive weight. And when the singer regards the lover as “the constant scrapegoat,” we wonder whether Dylan misread the word “scapegoat” when he came across it in his bible—although the more generous among us may credit him with a neologistically punning acknowledgment that Rotolo had been scraped or scarred by the experience, as she certainly had. (The various editions of Dylan’s published lyrics, however, consistently print “scapegoat” until the Simon and Schuster Ricks-Nemrow-Nemrow collection, The Lyrics (2014), prints what we hear on the record. This edition is the source for my quotations from Dylan’s lyrics in this essay.)

“The False Bride” includes a hauntingly enigmatic verse:

The men of yon forest they askit of me

How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?

I askit them back with a tear in my ee

How many ships sail through the forest?

At the end of “Ballad in Plain D,” in a coda following a harmonica break, Dylan transforms this verse in an attempt to resolve the song’s unsettled emotions by removing them to another, ineffable plane:

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me

“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”

And I answer them most mysteriously,

“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”

Dylan sings this wonderfully, his vocal timbre a kind of weary sigh, as the affair being consigned to the past is also being consigned to the permanence of memory—and of writing and performance. His melancholy almost redeems the non-contemporary “unto me” (which echoes usages in the King James Bible) for an elevating rhetorical pointing, and the rhymes of the first three lines are themselves further pointed by the additional internal rhyme in the final line. This makes the song’s final syllable, “way,” a sadly echoing pararhyme, a diminishment, complementing the falling cadence of the melody. However, although this transformation of the original ballad is ingenious, Dylan’s verse seems, as the original does not, portentous. Claiming to have “friends” in the prison, even if only a figurative gesture, is coyly ingratiating, given Dylan’s first audience at the time, the liberal-left of the East Coast folksong community; and the rhetorical question is more self-approving than cryptic. The conundrum, advertising its mystery, diminishes the genuinely potent mystery of the original and is in fact less mysterious than vacuous, because it can be easily explained. That is: birds suffer the limitations of the sky just as prisoners suffer the limitations of their cells; but strawberries do not grow in the sea, nor do ships sail through the forest (except in so far as they are made from the wood that grows there).

Despite Dylan’s persuasive performance, the traditional ballad is now, for this writer, at least for the time being, a form exhausted beyond effectiveness, exploding in self-contradiction. Such exacerbations as “Ballad in Plain D” exhibits demand an alternative kind of expression, and they were about to get it from this songwriter—no longer by balladic narrative recollection but by the abruptness and turmoil of immediate second-person address and the street vernacular heard only from the despised sister in “Ballad in Plain D” but now articulate on the singer’s own tongue, where it carries taunt and recrimination: “You got a lot o’ nerve to say you are my friend” in “Positively Fourth Street”; “Hey, please crawl out your window” in “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”; “How does it feel?” in “Like a Rolling Stone.” This confrontational and abrasive art propels Dylan’s realism towards the distortions of the surreal, the phantasmagorical, the electric and the chemical. “The changes I was going through can’t even be used,” he sings in “Ballad in Plain D”—meaning, in one sense, to make songs, to further the art. But paradoxically, this very song is of such use. It seems a necessary failure, a felix culpa, a station on the road to an unpredictably radical development. And when Dylan does return to ballad form, he makes it new all over again by converting it to different purposes: to the allegories and parables of John Wesley Harding (1967), for instance, or to the fictive collages of Tempest (2012).

The value of “Ballad in Plain D” lies, then, in its marking a major stage in Dylan’s development. Although flawed, it’s captivating too in that it’s one of the very few songs in which Dylan writes in confessional mode. The title self-reflexively encodes this confession if it intimates that the song gives us “plain Dylan” as well as, or rather than, merely declaring key or chording. Dylan’s life is in his songs, in several senses, but usually deflected into fiction, mythology, persona, mask—all the diversionary ploys of the modernist moment. “A poem is a naked person” say the liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home (1965): but no, it’s not, and certainly not in this poet, even as he makes the claim. The ill-handled confessionalism of “Ballad in Plain D” strongly suggests how right was Dylan’s instinct to abjure creative confessionalism subsequently. It was prompted, I suspect, by the interest, by both the angry or malign urge to blame and the benign urge to make a plea and a kind of reparation. But Dylan shows an awareness of his own failure, which he appears to regard as ethical as well as aesthetic, in the fascinating, extensive interview with Cameron Crowe published as part of his first major retrospective collection, Biograph, in 1985. He wishes he hadn’t written or recorded the song, he tells Crowe, without actually identifying it by name, but “it overtook my mind.” This implies both his passivity before his own perturbations and his failure in self-critical alertness, while also suggesting that this material had an obsessive hold over him. If he never in fact got around to saying sorry to Rotolo—and nowhere in A Freewheelin’ Time does she tell us that he did—then this comment may be read as a form of belated public apology.


But if “Boots of Spanish Leather” was also one of the songs Dylan attempted to use as an instrument of blame, the song itself refuses instrumentality by being so securely located in and enabled by the ballad tradition and its impersonality. The song’s re-creative intensity permanently casts it clear of the contingencies of its origins. Its narrative opens as a dialogue in which a lover departing on a voyage to Spain—not Italy, and so a first step away from biography—attempts to cajole the one left behind into accepting the offer of a promised gift by insinuating that the absence will be longer than the other anticipates. The reluctance to accept the gift derives from the knowledge that to do so will be to admit the end of the relationship. Only when a letter is eventually received implying that the return may in fact never happen at all does capitulation come, in the shape of the specific request for the boots of the song’s title. The verse which reports the letter’s receipt is the only one in which the song moves out of the present and into the past tense; and the final three verses of the song are then “spoken” by the abandoned one alone. As dialogue segues into monologue, “Boots of Spanish Leather” witnesses the psychology of disabused acceptance and recovery, the emotions attendant on admitting to the status of the less deceived.

The song shares a partly archaic language with “Ballad in Plain D,” but now the archaisms are expressively coherent. The phrasing “my own true love” in the opening line (“Oh, I’m sailing away my own true love”) is tenderly formal, inheriting a long tradition of address in English ballad and folksong, and the faltering relationship exhibited by the song is carried partly by the way the phrase reduces to the less archaic “my love” in the penultimate verse, where the second speaker’s change of mind and heart occurs (“If you, my love, must think that-a-way. . .”). The locution “something fine / Made of silver or of golden” in the third verse, to suggest the nature of the proffered gift, is a form of archaic-sounding coinage, since you can’t really say “of golden” in English. Dylan’s metrical need of the extra syllable and his invention of a brilliant slant-rhyme or assonance for “Barcelona,” which is where the gift might be sent from, presumably generate the phrase; but it seems enchantingly opulent, the extra syllable making the gold appear even richer and more generous (more “golden”) as a potential gift, and therefore formulated to induce the longing this speaker wishes to create in the addressee. Dylan’s voice caresses the words as it leaps up in delight from the first to the second syllable of “golden” and then languorously draws out the syllables of “Bar-ce-lona” (for which the rhyme isn’t really just the word “golden” but the whole glorious phrase, “or of golden,” in which the word “or” puts “ore” within aural reach too, silver ore becoming gold). The language of stars and diamonds compared adversely to the lover’s kisses in the fourth verse derives ultimately from a long tradition of amour courtois in medieval French and in the early Italian and English Elizabethan sonnet. And the final verse’s “take heed, take heed of the western wind” combines Elizabethan diction (Friar Laurence says, “take heed, take heed” to Romeo), medieval English lyric (“Western wind, when wilt thou blow / The small rain down can rain?” which Dylan transposes in his early song, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”), and a cadence from the ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” the tale of a shipwreck (“Make haste, make haste, my merry men all / Our good ship sails the morn”).

How deeply versed in any of these sources Dylan actually was is undiscoverable, but his absorptive and transformative capacity, his unerring instinct for exactly what was required, is breathtaking, as it often is subsequently in his work too, but perhaps never again with such intense, magpie command as at this early stage. He inhabits the traditions he shapes anew, bringing folk materials into sophisticated contemporary form and relevance without any hint of pastiche, just as Lorca does in his appropriations and reinventions of Spanish folk materials in his “gypsy ballads” of the 1920s. Whereas “Ballad in Plain D” too interestedly derives from experience, leading Dylan to miscalculate how a ballad can express a contemporary narrative and psychology, “Boots of Spanish Leather” writes experience into traditional form by a process of osmosis and diffusion, because Dylan is thinking intensively about what a ballad actually is. His eye, and ear, are on that, not on himself. So “Boots of Spanish Leather” seems almost to aspire to the anonymity of traditional balladry—making it, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “of present use.” The song may have depended for its inception on its author’s original experience of his lover’s escape to Italy, but it revels in the eventfulness of songwriting itself. It makes writing into a new experience and a new event—”event” in the sense both of happening and of outcome.

There’s one thing, though, that “Boots of Spanish Leather” doesn’t do that traditional Anglo-Scottish ballad usually does: it doesn’t use masculine rhyme in the abcb (or abab) pattern, and, indeed, only the sixth and ninth verses of the song carry full rhymes, but feminine ones— “sorrow” with “tomorrow” and “weather” with “leather.” Apart from these, the closing words of lines which would usually carry masculine rhymes are scarcely rhymes at all, but they are all feminine in cadence, moving from a stressed to an unstressed syllable—“morning” / “landing”; “ownin’” / “ocean”; “golden” / “Barcelona”; “ocean” / “ownin’”; “askin’” / “passin’”; “a-sailin’” / “a-feelin’”; “roamin’” / “goin’”—which we might describe as variously assonating, resonating, interweaving and repeating.

Not all traditional ballads employ masculine rhyme though. One exception is the widely collected and performed “Barbara Allen,” in which the eponymous heroine’s name prompts rhymes such as “failin’,” “drinkin’,” and “dealin’.” It’s also a song about an abandoned lover; and, although it doesn’t maintain a dialogue between a male and a female voice like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” it includes one. Dylan probably heard it in the clubs and would have known recorded versions by Jean Ritchie and Joan Baez. His adopted name “Dylan” also makes a feminine rhyme with “Allen,” as he might well have noticed, and his original forenames were Robert Allen, the latter spelled exactly as the surname of “Barbara” is, as he could hardly have failed to notice. Whether prompted by such coincidences or not, he was singing a lengthy, non-standard version in the clubs in 1962. In A Freewheelin’ Time Rotolo says that the recording of this, now available on Live at the Gaslight 1962 (2005), “tears at the heartstrings” (Freewheelin’ Time 183), and few will disagree. That the song has continued to haunt Dylan is clear from Tempest, where it figures once more as an element in one of the collage songs, “Scarlet Town,” for which it also supplies the title.

“Barbara Allen” can’t really be regarded as a “source” for “Boots of Spanish Leather,” but it is a resource. It acts as a watermark in the paper Dylan’s song is written on. In both, the palpable effect of the feminine rhymes is a sense of dissonant non-relation, an at-variance; and the feminine cadence sounds like a falling-off or a falling-away. In “Boots of Spanish Leather” this is subtly and appropriately expressive. It formally enacts the disentanglement which is the song’s emotional pivot, as the second speaker in the dialogue realizes that the lover really is leaving, that the offer of the gift has become suspiciously importunate, and that it might as well, therefore, be accepted. Those full rhymes—“sorrow” / “tomorrow” and “weather” / “leather”—set the seal on that recognition.

The feminine rhymes are appropriate too in a song about relations between the sexes, which opens in a kind of gender confusion. On first hearing, we assume that the male singer, engaged in the traditionally male activity of leaving a lover, is voicing a male character when he sings the opening verse—particularly since this singer is Bob Dylan, who has already portrayed himself in that role with self-justification and misgiving in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But, as we learn only in the seventh verse of this nine-verse song, with its change from first- and second-person to third-person (“Oh but I got a letter on a lonesome day, / It was from her ship a-sailin’”), the apparently callous letter of dismissal comes from “her.” Therefore the “I”—that is, of the song’s second, not its first, speaker—becomes indisputably male, at least in the heterosexual dispensation. Even so, it could be that the remarkable word “unspoiled” in the second verse, as he asks her “Just to carry yourself back to me unspoiled / From across that lonesome ocean,” is a sure signal of the speaker’s masculinity. The OED gives as an obsolete sense of “spoil,” “to ravish or violate (a woman)” and cites a 1694 translation of Rabelais: “He has spoiled me. I am undone.” By strange coincidence, “Ballad in Plain D” has “she was easily undone / By the jealousy of others around her”; and in A Freewheelin’ Time Rotolo, perhaps echoing Dylan, says that she was “undone” by the breakdown she suffered in the wake of both an abortion and the end of the relationship (Freewheelin’ Time 280).

To my knowledge, Dylan sings as a woman in only two other collected songs: the traditional “House of the Rising Sun” on Bob Dylan (1962), voiced for an apparently captive New Orleans prostitute, and “North Country Blues” on The Times They Are A-Changin’, voiced for a single mother suffering near-destitution as the iron-ore mines which have traditionally sustained her community are shut down. Plaintiveness and censure inhere in the Dylan voice in these songs of female complaint. In the former, what begins as controlled self-containment mounts to outraged intensity as Dylan shouts the later verses against a pounding guitar figure, making it seem that the only thing that can survive such damage is a howl of abject self-affirmation. In the latter, the voice, stark against a spare guitar accompaniment, appears to be inflected with Dylan’s uncondescending, even appreciative, deployment of a North Country accent (most obviously, “mah sklin” for “my schooling,” but also “whatched,” “whun” and “whaited” for “watched,” “one” and “waited”), bringing deprivation and barely manageable responsibility alive as locally vocalized personality.

The only song of Dylan’s to be written in both male and female voices, though, “Boots of Spanish Leather,” redeploys attributes traditionally thought “female” to the male voice, a redeployment prompted or enabled in large part by the song’s withholding of gender categorization until so late in its course. This withholding attaches particularly to the tone in which the final request for the boots is made (“And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, / Spanish boots of Spanish leather”). Is this jaunty defiance, sorrowful acceptance, or opportunistic demand? (That the requested gift should be Spanish boots may also derive from traditional ballad: from the one Dylan calls “Blackjack Davey” on Good As I Been to You (1992), in which the eponymous hero asks the “pretty little miss,” preparatory to riding off with her, to “Pull off, pull off them high-heeled shoes / Made of Spanish leather.”)

When he sang “Boots of Spanish Leather” as a demo for his music publishing company shortly after writing it—the version available on The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (2010)—Dylan introduced it to someone in the studio by saying, “This imposes a real problem. ‘Imposes,’ is that the right word? Or supposes a real problem.” “Real problem” seems to point to the actual circumstances from which the song’s beautiful and aching fiction derives; and the song may both impose and suppose this problem. But its plot just poses one, which may be the word Dylan was actually seeking. What is the problem though? Is it to do with scruple? To ask for the gift or not to ask? To recognize when exactly the moment has come to ask? What kind of gift to ask for? When Dylan sang it in concert at the Town Hall, New York in April 1963, he introduced it oddly: “This is eh . . . [a long pause] . . . I used to be quite romantic and eh . . . [another long pause] . . . this song’s called ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and eh . . . [a further pause while Dylan eases into the guitar figure which opens the song].” (This performance, but without the introduction, can be heard on Bob Dylan Live 1962-1966 (2018); the version with the introduction is available online). Clearly, he was about to say something further, three times, but refused himself permission, possibly even remembering that you should probably not say in a concert hall what you might permit yourself to say in the greater intimacy of a club. This suggests a still smarting emotional investment in the song and implies that the circumstances behind it are his reason for being no longer “romantic.”

But if “Boots of Spanish Leather” quells this form of romanticism in its writer, it’s the notable expression of a sentiment endemic to Romanticism itself. The song is deeply imbued with yearning. It’s this yearning that makes the tone in which the gift is finally requested not just ambivalent but beguilingly so. On the Witmark demo Dylan sings the word “there’s” in the phrase “And yes there’s something you can send back to me” almost, but not quite, as though he’s stretching it more emphatically into “there is”: “Yes, there is something you can send back to me,” which sounds more self-assertive than the recorded version. And in the New York concert the lines which name the gift are: “And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, / Send me boots of Spanish leather,” where the imperative also sounds more forceful than the recorded version. It’s replaced there by the word “Spanish,” so that the word now figures twice in the five-word line that ends the song, as an adjective identifying both national origin and material of manufacture: “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.”

I feel about this variation as T. S. Eliot does about some phrases in Shakespeare, such as Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” after her mistress’s death in Antony and Cleopatra. “I could not myself put into words,” he says, “the difference I feel between the passage if these two words were omitted and with them. But I know there is a difference, and that only Shakespeare could have made it.” I’m not sure that I can myself put into words the difference I feel between these versions of the song’s final lines, but I know there is a difference, and that only Bob Dylan could have made it. As close as I can put it into words, the difference has to do with the quality of its yearning, which the repetition underwrites. It’s an unnecessary repetition, since what are Spanish boots likely to be made of, after all, but Spanish leather? It’s surplus, as the abandoned lover is too as he exits the song alone; but it also makes the boots seem more lavishly alluring, perhaps even in a fetishistic way—matching, it may be, the attempted allure of the lover’s “of golden” earlier in the song. It’s as surplus as the interruptive breath Dylan takes when he sings the second “Spanish” on the album: “Spanish boots of Spa- / -nish leather.” He doesn’t do this on the Witmark demo, and it’s not as though he needs the air. It’s therefore an elected performance, if one spontaneously elected before the studio microphone. It sounds wholly untheatrical, nevertheless it is dramatically expressive. It’s a catch in the breath, as reality is finally accepted, but it’s something else too. It’s as if Dylan is stepping further inside himself, withdrawing into a private elsewhere which the song has opened for him—“with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath,” as Allen Ginsberg says of him more generally in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005). This melancholy space of interiority, or self-recollection, seems tacitly to criticize the various forms of masculine performance which might otherwise have inhered in the request. The Bob Dylan who opens the song in the voice and person of a woman, now in the voice and person of a man, subdues customary forms of masculine bitterness and recrimination to something more poignant, absorbed, and self-estranged.

Even so, there’s a hint in the specificity of the request that it’s not spontaneous but has been long meditated. Made neither of silver nor of golden, the proposed gift has less pecuniary value than the one offered, which perhaps criticizes her insinuation that value might lie, for him, in financial worth. So at least the shadow of a subtly resistant irony passes across these lines. He cannot choose her, since she refuses to choose him, but he can still choose something for himself; and what he chooses is designed specifically to get him back on his feet again, and to let her know it. Dylan’s expressive singing of the song’s final line in fact makes for two protracted pauses: in the middle of the word “Spanish,” but also after the word “of.” These delay the final full clinching rhyme of “leather” with “weather,” compelling us to wait for it. Given the ambiguities of the verse, this wait seems neither defiant nor self-assertive, but it does make the closure, of both the song and the affair, appear, in a phrase Dylan uses more than once elsewhere in his work, a “final end.”


There are several moments in A Freewheelin’ Time when you feel that, for Rotolo, things were never finally settled with Bob Dylan, despite the spirited and independent resilience on display in her fine book. She even tells us that there are certain early Dylan songs that she can’t listen to because they bring so much back to her. This is hardly surprising. Living the fleeting life that becomes the basis of permanent art, especially such popular and well-known art, exacts a heavy price if you are the one written about rather than the one writing, however well you cope with the end of the affair. But, given its performance of unsettled masculinity, it may be that “Boots of Spanish Leather” was one early Dylan song that Suze Rotolo was in fact able to continue listening to, whatever else it was liable to bring back home.

Works Cited

Dylan, Bob. The Lyrics, ed. Christopher Ricks, Lisa Nemrow and Julie Nemrow (Simon and Schuster, 2014).

______. Writings and Drawings (Jonathan Cape, 1973).

Eliot, T.S. “John Dryden – II. Dryden the Dramatist,” Listener, 22 April 1931, 681.

Leonard, Aaron J. “FBI Tracking of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo Foreshadowed Future Abuses,” Truthout, September 1, 2019

Le Sueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).

Rotolo, Suze. A Freewheelin’ Time (Broadway Books, 2008).

Van Ronk, Dave (with Elijah Wald). The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (Da Capo Press, 2005)