Alessandro Portelli. Bob Dylan, pioggia e veleno: “Hard Rain,” una ballata fra tradizione e modernità. Donzelli Editore, 2018.

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

If you’re reading these words, it means you’re that kind of Bob Dylan passionate who’s willing to deepen his or her knowledge on the matter. You’ve read bios, you’ve read essays, and you’re serious about it. So you’ve probably read many times that this or that song draws or quotes from or refers to this or that source, this or that song. Usually this is the kind of information we retain in our mental bank of data, but if that’s all we do with it, we are erasing that info at the same time. It becomes a sterile notion. It has no life. Well, if that perspective frustrates you, this is the book you’ve been dreaming of.

Working on a single song, Portelli provides us with a voluminous experience. Now don’t get me wrong, Bob Dylan’ songs are alive. They are about life, they have veins and exude life, but often they keep a certain aura of mystery, which is part of their magic. Meanwhile their author is a real person, not just a persona, and he gathers inputs and draws inspiration from everywhere and anytime. Exegesis is often valuable and even necessary. Portelli walks us through a land where time, space, and culture overlap, and the destination is a memory that, when it exists, is already tradition — not unlike the traditional music that Bob Dylan cherishes and deems immortal.

Something happened, maybe, centuries ago, in Italy, and somebody decided to tell a story, in the ballad form, though where and when exactly the episode took place is not known. It’s a tragic story: a man comes home to his mother and, by what he narrates, she realizes he’s been poisoned by his lover. He’s going to die. So she starts asking him what will he leave and to whom, hence the song’s title, “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” o “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man’s Will” or also “The Poisoned Man”). The ballad goes on in the form of a dialogue, question and answer, which offers us a parade of situations that build up in a perfect “relative-climax.” That ballad traveled, locally in Italy, from region to region, from dialect to dialect, and eventually through Europe, landing in Great Britain, where, after having gone through a linguistic sieve and a synthesizing process, it became “Lord Randall.” 

What usually happens with traditional songs, especially those that stick around in the collective imaginary, is that they become archetypes, the characters become functions and the tales become symbols. Portelli examines the Italian song’s meaning, but above all its legacy and its trail all the way down to the apocalyptic vision of “A-Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Intertwining his own memories and experiences as ethnomusicologist (one of Portelli’s many fields) wandering throughout the country recording traditional songs and preserving the oral tradition, the author allows us to time travel and to witness an alchemic development. 

One of the questions I find myself asking more and more frequently, reading Dylan-themed essays — especially those connecting him with ancient Greek and Romance languages cultures — is: was he that well-read when he was that young? Is it possible? Sometimes the descriptions of Dylan’s hyperliterary youth seem a bit of a stretch, yet this is not the case with the thesis introduced in Pioggia e veleno. Bob Dylan places himself — accidentally, or unaware — at the crossroad between tradition (the past) and evolution (the future): this specific song blossoms on a ground that had been fecundated centuries before.

The songwriter stands at the intersection of popular culture and dazzling new poetry, of oral tradition and culture industry (and its reproducibility), of spoken word, live performance, and music. The song is the result of one million steps walked by ten thousand people within an invisible map, people moved by the compass of fate, and then the song becomes a tool to expand that map’s borders. Thanks to Portelli, we’re now able to retrace some of those steps, getting close to the song’s source; we can navigate that ethereal land and meet the blue-eyed boy across time. 

Portelli identifies numerous technical details about the composition of the lyrics that are relevant when comparing the two songs: the use of anaphora and alliteration, for instance. But while the author offers insights about the literary devices, he’s an experienced and educational popularizer and never exceeds in technicalities.

Portelli practices the noble art of digression, but that doesn’t take unnecessary space. On the contrary, it usually produces informative paragraphs or footnotes that add to the overall comprehension of the subject. The digressions are like telltale signs that shed a light on the folk map which leads to the creation of “Hard Rain,” the solid foundation on which Bob Dylan started to draw his own poetic map. And this is the only point where I would respectfully disagree with one concept the author expresses: he says that in the very moment that the songwriter composed this song, he was prodigiously hanging in the balance between two worlds with a power he would never find again. While it is possibly true the young balladeer known as Bob Dylan was in a state of ecstasy, touched by otherworldly perfection, close to the purest folk form (if that’s even a thing), I would say that he has been able to find an equally powerful voice at other moments in his career. He has, for one example, added modernist elements and created a completely new language that has been explored and expanded for decades — but this consideration is of secondary importance in the light of the extensive work of detection presented here.

The book will be published in English soon, by Columbia University Press, and the good news is that it’s a revised and expanded edition with an extra focus on the oral tradition.

It goes without saying that Alessandro Portelli knows his song well before…

Luca Grossi. Bob Dylan in Hell: Songs in Dialogue with Dante – part I. Arcana, 2018. 128 pps.

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

Lately there has been a new flow of Bob Dylan books. Maybe this stream is a little bit of a Nobel aftermath, or maybe it’s simply Time that going by helps us to put things in the correct perspective. Either way, Bob seems to be settling in among the Classics, or at least knockin’ on their door, and this short essay surely points us in that direction, from Hell to Heaven, following an Italian poet from the thirteenth century’s tracks. The book is the result of a university dissertation and it had to be edited for publishing purposes. Indeed, the original project was supposed to examine the three cantiche and, allow me to say, we long for the complete project to be released.

This book’s original nature is one of its weak points. While the author’s voice is clear and intriguing, what we can perceive, from time to time, is that he addresses an audience of people who are familiar with the subject of Dante, while a more divulgative approach would have been the proper choice to draw more readers and to draw them to both poets. Unluckily, as relevant as Dante is in modern culture and history, he’s not everybody’s bread and butter. His language is, alas, archaic, and it needs more paraphrase and context than what is found in this book. Don’t get me wrong, the author dwells upon the notions he means to propose long enough to make his point clear, but sometimes the reader can feel a lack of details that would be useful for comprehension. Surely, though, the person that would buy this kind of book is interested in investing time to read it, so why spare ink when it would only make the reader happier, more fulfilled? The flip side is that the author proposes an interesting but daring idea, so he needs to lavish us with strong points to support it. We know how (anal)ytical Bob’s fans can be. Sometimes they devote themselves to a new input like missionaries, or sometimes they get feisty and dismiss it completely. Of course, the fans can’t be an author’s compass, but in this dialogue they are his counterpart. 

At the end of each chapter (each analyzed song corresponds to a chapter), the author discusses the metric scheme of the song and then poses a kind of moral question (we all know where those answers are blowin’). The scheme as it is doesn’t give us new inputs, and I feel it should either be improved or removed. It should provide us with more food for thought; otherwise, it remains a sterile element. The question, however, while it would probably be better placed at the end of the song’s analysis, is delicate and suggestive of the book’s key point: not simply that the American Bard probably crossed paths with the Sommo Poeta, and that he drew some inspiration from his main work, the Divina Commedia, but that certain moral/ethical questions tend to come back to those sensitive enough to realize that the world is going wrong. What I appreciate about this perspective is that Grossi is suggesting, or even better, conjuring (in a less playful way than Scorsese) the idea for us. He’s not arrogant nor presumptuous when planting this seed in our mind, even in our conscience.

Many personal accounts of the Song and Dance Man describe him like a sponge, and that’s the visual I want to call to mind here. It would be easy to question the author’s perspective, possibly claiming that Bob couldn’t have been so well read in Dante’s matter at such a young age, when rambling around New York City’s streets, and that is probably true. Some of the details that Grossi works on are minute, and at times the analysis sounds a bit stretched (“All the Tired Horses” and “Union Sundown” chapters for instance), but this happens in minor cases. The author’s ideas come across as revelations, as thunder, when we read the pages devoted to “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Desolation Row.” We can easily imagine the young Dylan spending time in libraries as he did, or reading essays passed on by Suze Rotolo, or maybe titles found in the house of the intellectuals and bohemians they were spending time with. In Chronicles we get a taste of the environment he was immersed in. We can easily picture him going through a Dante compendium or essay about the Divina Commedia’s themes, its questions, its metaphors, and Dante’s journey from Hell to Heaven. We can imagine the youngster’s swirling brain, the wannabe poet, projecting himself on such a journey. Yeah, that seems to be a safe assumption, and on that journey, well, there are surely a lot of special people and events waiting for a visionary narrator to come and immortalize ‘em. 

One of the most inspiring aspects of a great artist’s body of work is that it is open, it gives us room to project what resonates for us, and it usually works on a subjective level. It can also be a trigger for future artists, inspiration that passes through generations in mysterious and symbolic ways. To solve the mystery, we sometimes need a detective, a critic like Grossi, a Dante scholar who has clearly mastered his subject. I won’t spill the beans about the spellbinding work he performs at the peak of his treatment, but I will say that his readings of “Blind Willie McTell” and “Seven Curses” leave us with some serious digging to do.

We need more of this research, a complete and exhaustive essay, that walks us as Virgil walked Dante through this challenging and fascinating kind of detection. But if anybody happens to visit Italy, they better check the theatrical adaptation of Grossi’s book. A show has been made out of the book: two musicians and the author give a live rendition of the text, perhaps because 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Celebrations will go on all over the country, online and in person (as soon as it is safe and healthy). This circus will be in town.

The World of Bob Dylan. Ed. Sean Latham. Cambridge University Press, 2021, xix + 349 pp. Hardback. ISBN-13. 978-1-108-49951-4. GPB 20. [1]

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent Scholar, Luxembourg

The volume under review is a multi-author study of the figure and work of Bob Dylan from an extremely wide range of points of view. It is edited by Sean Latham, Walter Professor of English and Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa — also home to the Bob Dylan Archive and the Woody Guthrie Center — hosted the major conference held from 30 May to 2 June 2019 under the title “The World of Bob Dylan” (in which this reviewer was a participant), although it should be stressed that this volume, despite the shared name, is not the proceedings of that conference. It may also be useful here to distinguish between: the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies (an academic research cell); the Bob Dylan Archive (a collection of over 100,000 objects for consultation on appointment, purchased in 2016 by Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with the University of Tulsa, and held at the city’s Gilcrease Museum); and the Bob Dylan Center (to be the public face of Dylan in Tulsa, scheduled for opening to the general public in 2022).

The World of Bob Dylan is presented as “the first published project to emerge from the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies” (xiv). It brings together 28 texts (introduction, chronology and 26 chapters proper) by a total of 26 contributors, the editor included. 18 are male and 8 female, while 22 are described as based in the US, one in Canada, two in the UK and one in Denmark. Most chapters appear to have been purpose-written for the volume. Two at least, however, originate in the 2019 Tulsa conference. The chapter by Greil Marcus is explicitly credited to his Tulsa keynote speech; that by Ann Powers, another keynoter, reads as if the publication of her text from the event; and there may be more. The role of the archive as a new determinant in Dylan studies is reflected in the fact that two of the contributors quote and formally credit material retrieved via their personal research activities there. The chapters read in general as fresh and new, although several have not been updated insofar as their authors refer to Dylan’s Never Ending Tour as if it were still never ending, rather than forced into stoppage by the circumstances of which we are all aware.

Sean Latham introduces the volume, recalling the multiplicity of Dylan’s work and stressing how each chapter offers a different approach to understanding its “depth, complexity and legacy” (2). He states that the collection aims at a broad readership: while written by experts and scholars, the essays are designed to be accessible both to long-term fans and to the curious. After the introduction comes a six-page-plus chronology, the joint work of Latham and Kevin J. Dettmar. The essays that follow are grouped into five parts: “Creative Life,” “Musical Contexts,” “Cultural Contexts,” “Political Contexts,” and “Reception and Legacy.”

Part I (“Creative Life”) opens with the chronology and continues with “The Biographies,” an essay by Andrew Muir, author of several Dylan-themed books, including most recently The True Performing Of It, a study of Dylan and Shakespeare. Here, he examines the merits and characteristics of the various published lives of Bob Dylan — those by Anthony Scaduto, Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin, Bob Spitz, Howard Sounes, and Ian Bell — coming down in favor of Heylin as best biographer, thanks above all to his “formidable” research (27). The essay contains detailed comparative analysis and will surely be found useful by future students, as I am not aware that this particular task had been done before. Muir also stresses the “game-changing” role of the Bob Dylan Archive, henceforth a must-consult stopping-place for all aspiring biographers: “the future of Dylan biographies is clearly going to be ‘post-Tulsa’” (30).

The next chapter is by Sean Latham and is entitled “Songwriting.” The author ranges over Dylan’s “massive” song catalogue (32), noting how the songwriting process of “Like a Rolling Stone” can today be followed in detail thanks to the Cutting Edge release, and offering fresh and careful readings of the likes of “Song to Woody” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” He praises the Basement Tapes as amounting to a “graduate seminar in American music,” and “Love and Theft” as showing an “extraordinary depth of learning,” to be juxtaposed with Dylan’s selections on his Theme Time Radio Hour (41). In this area too, the research benefits of the archive are stressed, alongside its “sheer size and depth,” and Latham forecasts that now we have it, “unraveling Dylan’s writing processes will take decades of work” (33).

Keith Negus offers an essay with the title “The Singles: A Playlist for Framing Dylan’s Recording Art.” Dylan is known primarily as an album artist, but here Negus focuses on the single, viewing the 45 as a conduit to a more general listening public and thus as historically a means of broadening the audience for at least some of Dylan’s songs. Ten singles (some as recorded by Dylan, some in cover versions) are examined in detail, not from the viewpoint of sales or chart statistics, but from that of the messages communicated through this format. They range from “Blowin’ in the Wind” (in the Peter, Paul and Mary cover) through “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” to the Grammy-winning “Things Have Changed.”

There follows part II, “Musical Contexts,” whose essays trace Dylan’s relationship to an unfolding series of musical genres: folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, roots music and the Great American Songbook. To start with the first, Ronald D. Cohen’s chapter “Folk Music” examines Dylan’s relationship with that genre. Cohen shows (leaning, legitimately enough, on Chronicles) how Dylan — described by Nat Hentoff in the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sleevenotes as “so powerful and so personal and so important a singer” (69) — gradually became part of the folk milieu to the point of being a seeming fixture there (Cohen quotes from Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: “the folk world was his oyster” (70)), until he dramatically dissociated himself from that same milieu. The story is scarcely new, but Cohen’s is a sound retelling.

The next chapter is by Greil Marcus and, as we have seen above, replicates his keynote lecture at the Tulsa conference, beyond any doubt one of the highlights of that event. Marcus entitles his text: “The Blues: ‘Kill Everyone Ever Done Me Wrong’” (the subtitle is a reference to the blues number “Railroad Bill,” recorded in 1929 by Will Bennett, and in 1961 by Dylan on the Minneapolis party tape). The chapter opens, with a somber sense of place, by recalling the notorious white supremacist massacre of 1921 which decimated the African American community in Tulsa — “the worst single racial crime in the United States after slavery” (73). What follows is, despite the title, not some kind of conspectus of Dylan’s multifaceted relationship with the blues (a herculean task, best attempted to date by Michael Gray). Rather, the author looks closely at three chosen aspects of the subject, namely: “Railroad Bill” in the Bennett and Dylan versions and its significance as an “outlaw blues”; Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and Dylan’s cover of the song on his first album; and, leaping to 1997, Time Out of Mind, seen by Marcus as “Bob Dylan’s great blues album” (74) and of which he comments: “I can’t recall a major artist . . . offering people anything as bleak, as barren, as hopeless as this record” (84-85). As always, Greil Marcus, as music writer and cultural commentator, approaches his subject-matter with simultaneous expertise and passion, brought to bear on both the details and the bigger picture.

Gayle Wald’s chapter, “Gospel Music,” examines what the author considers to be the “least examined” and “most poorly understood” of Dylan’s musical modes (88), and notes the crucial role played by African American female artists in that side of his work. She stresses the importance of the women backup singers for Dylan’s live performances in his “Christian period,” seeing them as “co-creators” of that phase of Dylan’s work (95), and also examines Dylan’s later personal and professional relationship with Mavis Staples.

Leigh Edwards, in her chapter, “Country Music: Dylan, Cash, and the Projection of Authenticity,” looks at the Dylan/Johnny Cash relationship and how their collaborations “activated new potential” in country music (110). She also unearths a song recorded by Cash in 1965, “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” about the original John Wesley Hardin, as a point of comparison with the title track of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding — a work which she sees as reflecting a “mixture of folk and mass culture” (108). This chapter makes for useful reading alongside the 2019 Bootleg Series issue Travelin’ Thru.

Ira Wells writes on “Rock Music” — a well-worn Dylan theme on which it is not easy to say something new. The author retraces the familiar Newport 65 story, but also stresses, with the benefit of hindsight, how the poetic turn in Dylan’s lyrics as he embraced rock conferred a “new intellectual credibility” on the emerging genre (118), heralding the “exploration of the individual self within a mass cultural form” (119). Kim Ruehl, in the chapter “Roots Music: Born in a Basement,” finds a comparable turning-point in 1967, viewing the Dylan/Band collaborations that became famous as the Basement Tapes as the effective creation of a new genre, namely roots music, and the marking — here evoking Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic/The Old, Weird America — of a “pivotal moment in the history of American music” (124).

The final essay on musical genre is provided by Larry Starr’s “The Great American Songbook: Better Duck Down the [Tin Pan] Alley Way, Lookin’ For a New Friend.” The wordplay in the title reflects the author’s contention that we should not have been surprised by Dylan’s turn to the Great American Songbook in the three “Sinatra albums.” Clearly an admirer of the trilogy, Starr believes it contains “potential material for several books” (134), meanwhile offering his chapter as “a modest guide for future investigation” (134). He goes on to analyze several cases of Dylan’s recourse to the Songbook: the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Blue Moon’ from Self-Portrait in 1970, “the only Great American Songbook selection to appear on any officially released Dylan album prior to [2015]” (135-136); “Beyond the Horizon” from Modern Times in 2006, which (this was news to me) takes its tune and its atmosphere from the Bing Crosby classic “Red Sails in the Sunset”; and “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” viewed in their context on Shadows in the Night. Starr concludes that “Dylan is helping to keep this repertoire alive” (143).

In part III (“Cultural Contexts”), two essays take on the issue of the literary Dylan, inevitably in a post-Nobel context. The Danish academic Anne-Marie Mai — incidentally the volume’s only contributor from outside the Anglosphere — has a particularly wide brief in a chapter entitled “World Literature.” She lists key literary references in the songs and Tarantula, and, in an analysis that needed doing, dissects Dylan’s Nobel lecture, stressing the points in common between the three classics he focuses on (the Odyssey, Moby Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front). Mai concludes that with Bob Dylan, “world literature came within reach for a growing audience” (168). Florence Dore, in her contribution “American Literature,” poses the question of Dylan’s intellectual respectability as songwriter: “What are the Bob Dylan Archive and the Tulsa University Institute for Bob Dylan Studies doing within university walls ?” (148-149). While incidentally noting the Dylan references in contemporary US authors, most notably Don De Lillo, as well as Dylan’s place on the faultline between “high” and “low” culture, Dore, rather than as might be expected examining Dylan’s debt to classic writers like Whitman or Poe, foregrounds the literary claims of a less obvious protagonist, namely Huddie Leadbetter or Leadbelly. She narrates how the blues artist was invited in 1934 to play before a panel on “Popular Literature” (including no less a folklorist than Alan Lomax) at the convention of the Modern Language Association, an episode that advocates for the blues as a form of literature. Dore thus effectively contends that popular music lyrics could be part of American literature well before Dylan, let alone his Nobel – which award, she concludes, “confirms the deep overlap between American literature and rock’n’roll” (156). Still in the literary register, the chapter “The Beats” by Stephen Belletto examines in fresh detail a familiar textual current, namely the influence on Dylan of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat Generation writers. Belletto includes close contrastive analyses, pairing Ginsberg’s “Howl” with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels with the song known to have absorbed elements from it, “Desolation Row.”

The contribution by Damian Carpenter, “Theatre,” moves us away from the music/literature dyad and into Dylan’s wider multimedia world. The author looks at various aspects of Dylan and the theatre, including the influence of major theatrical figures like Bertolt Brecht, using biographical material from Chronicles and A Freewheelin’ Time, Dylan’s later collaborations with Jacques Levy and Sam Shepard, and Conor McPherson’s 2017 play Girl from the North Country; we also, intriguingly, learn of Dylan’s own “abandoned play manuscripts” (182).

With the chapter “Visual Arts: Goya’s Kiss,” Raphael Falco broadens the discussion to include Dylan’s production in the plastic arts (the Goya reference is to a comment in a 2001 letter to Dylan from Tony Bennett, retrieved from the archive). Falco enumerates the half score or so exhibitions of Dylan’s visual art that have taken place since the first in Chemnitz (Germany) in 2007, in prestigious venues including New York’s Gagosian Gallery, as well as London’s Halcyon Gallery and even its National Portrait Gallery. He stresses the multigeneric nature of Dylan’s visual art production, from paintings and drawings to metal gates. Falco notes that this “flurry of exhibitions in the last fifteen years testifies to the surprising productivity of Dylan the visual artist” (198), also drawing attention to the visual art references in the songs (“When I Paint My Masterpiece” being but one example) and concluding that “Dylan’s songs will always be his first art” but that “when he alludes to the other arts in his songs they are often the same arts he himself practices and exhibits,” thus suggesting a holistic view of Dylan as creator.

Kevin Dettmar’s chapter, “Borrowing,” homes in on the by now well-trodden issue of plagiarism versus intertextuality. The subject has already been ably examined, from the intertextuality side, by scholars including Richard Thomas, and Dettmar, while mentioning the best-known cases (Junichi Saga, Henry Timrod, Ovid), does not analyze them in detail. He positions himself in favor of the intertextual, invoking literary theory (T.S. Eliot and Roland Barthes) and refuting the notion of plagiarism as being a “pretty blunt instrument” (205). Dettmar goes on to demonstrate the sophistication of the intertextual model with a concrete example — a careful reading of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and how it harks back, through the keyword “lonesome,” to Hank Williams.

The two remaining essays in this section return to the motif of religion, this time from a point of view more textual than musical. Elliott R. Wolfson, in his chapter “Judaism,” offers a detailed argument reading the Dylan oeuvre as infused with concepts from Jewish theology, while Andrew McCarron’s “Christianity: An Exegesis of Modern Times” offers a Christian reading of that album — coherent enough within its own terms, though containing what I would regard as an error in twice linking “Spirit on the Water” (230 and 233) to the Cain archetype: Dylan’s song has “I can’t go back to paradise no more/I killed a man back there,” but the biblical Cain, born after his parents’ fall, was never in paradise in the first place.

Part IV (“Political Contexts”) opens with “The Civil Rights Movement” by Will Kaufman. This is well-known territory, but the author offers some useful focuses, stressing that while African American musicians (Odetta, Leadbelly, Harry Belafonte) were major influences on Dylan’s early career, it was never his intention to speak directly for their community: he preferred to narrate as a witness. Kaufman also reminds us that the never fully resolved “lack of certainty over Dylan’s ‘commitment’ to the civil rights movement . . . is one of the defining features of the critical response to his work” (239). Michael J. Kraemer’s piece entitled “The Counterculture” is in fact mostly focused on John Wesley Harding, in which album he finds Dylan symbolically embodying a newly rural and traditionalist model for that social movement, in opposition to the extraverted psychedelia embraced by the Beatles in Sergeant Pepper. Putting Dylan’s 1968 opus under the microscope, he concludes it was “less a repudiation of the counterculture than an exploration of new directions in which it might move” (253). Kraemer also offers us tantalizing glimpses of how the archive’s notebooks for this period shed a fascinating light on the John Wesley Harding songs, their composition and their biblical sources. 

Ann Powers’ keynote address from Tulsa is entitled “Gender and Sexuality – Bob Dylan’s Body.” The well-known music critic breaks down Dylan’s projection of his body into four phases — in his early career, the “soft body”; from 1966, the “mod body”; from 1975, the “star body”; and from 1997, the “mortal body.” The author demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of Dylan’s career and a creative use of diverse biographical sources. A cross-career perspective is also offered by Lisa O’Neill-Sanders in her chapter “Justice.” Her analysis offers what scholars should find a useful catalogue of the recurring themes of criminality and criminal justice in the songs, from “The Death of Emmett Till” and “Seven Curses” through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to “Hurricane” and “Political World,” noting that these are motifs that “persist throughout his career” (278). The author concludes by hailing a song from recent times, “Early Roman Kings” from 2012, as embodying a universal inheritance of crime, in a world where — as Dylan said in 1975 – “justice is a game.”

Part V (“Reception and Legacy”) rounds off the book with four essays. Two focus on the more commercial aspects of Dylan’s career and his relationship with the world of marketing. Advertising professor Devon Powers, in “The Bob Dylan Brand,” examines the phenomenon of the mercantile Dylan, from Cadillac commercials to his own Heaven’s Door whiskey, arguing that “‘Bob Dylan’ is in many ways more symbol than person, in the past as a flashpoint for ‘generational sentiment and attachment” (293) and today as an emblem of longevity and a living legend. This chapter is complemented by David R. Shumway’s “Bob Dylan: Stardom and Fandom,” where it is argued that Dylan was central to the formation of the notion of the rock star as artist, although by the end of the 1960s he had become “a star defined by his changes rather than the consistency of his persona” (313). Shumway also stresses the “peculiar devotion” and the “cerebral” nature  (323) of Dylan’s fan base, with his mutability and unpredictability accepted as part of his stardom. 

In the chapter “The Nobel Prize: the Dramaturgy of Consecration,” James F. English takes us back to the world of literature and rehearses the by now familiar story of the vicissitudes of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel. This story has of course been told before, notably by Richard Thomas and Stephen Scobie, but it bears retelling as the author guides us through its various phases — the initial shock (for many) of the award, the multiple reactions for and against, Dylan’s famous delay in responding, Patti Smith’s performance at the ceremony and Dylan’s last-minute Nobel lecture. He also reminds us that this was hardly Dylan’s first major award, recalling the Pulitzer citation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Polar Prize and more, all of this being scarcely a precedent for imitating Jean-Paul Sartre and refusing the Nobel (as some suggested). English also takes a commendably original line in reading the entire Dylan/Nobel thread as a dramatic exercise, a form of living the world of literary prizes as spectacle. He concludes that “the 2016 prize lives on as a particularly vivid and well elaborated ‘storm of controversy’,” and as part of the Nobel’s inherent “dramaturgy” (312).

The closing chapter, “The Bob Dylan Archive,” is contributed by the archive’s director, Mark A. Davidson. The volume thus concludes by foregrounding the topic which has studded it as a leitmotif across its pages. Davidson outlines the BDA’s history, calling it “one of the most important collections ever constructed” (328), and stressing its “multifaceted and three-dimensional” nature (330). He stresses that the material it holds is not transparent — it calls for interpretation, like Bob Dylan himself, and is “more sphinx than oracle” (331). As examples of its richness, Davidson cites multiple drafts of Tarantula, the footage of Don’t Look Back, or 19 manuscript pages of lyrics for “Jokerman.” He concludes by hailing the BDA as a challenge for “exploring what archives mean in the 21st century” (334). Davidson’s case for the significance of the archive for researchers is irrefutable. I would, however, enter the caveat that not all Dylan scholars have the resources or the availability to make frequent visits to Tulsa, and it would be unfortunate if a two-tier hierarchy was created in the Dylan community according to whether or not one has consulted the archive — recalling also, as I write, the current environment of travel restrictions, as well as the fact that this is not an online archive. That said, it is clear that the creation of the archive has ushered in a whole new era in Dylan studies. 

The World of Bob Dylan may itself be seen as a publication geared to the existence of the archive, offering multiple pathways for future research around it. This is an excellent volume, and the different contributions are of a uniformly high standard. The range of aspects of Dylan studies covered is impressive. Some facets of Dylan’s world are absent or only touched on in passing, for instance his relationship with the cinema or his reception in the non-Anglophone world. However, all in all I consider this one of the best collective volumes on Bob Dylan that I have read in a long time, and indeed one of the most interesting publications of any kind on Dylan that have come my way in recent years. For anyone seeking an up-to-the-moment Dylan book that opens many a door with valuable information and new insights, this volume is indeed right on target. 


[1] As contributors to this collection, Dylan Review editors Raphael Falco and Lisa O’Neill Sanders recused themselves from any involvement in the procuring and editing of this review.

Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan 1970. 3 CDs, Sony Legacy, Columbia Records, 2021.

REVIEW BY David Thurmaier, University of Missouri, Kansas City

In Chronicles, Volume One, Bob Dylan casually describes the two albums he released in 1970 (Self Portrait and New Morning): “I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that too.” Dylan’s methods of working in the studio are legendary, quickly recording batches of songs, but these sessions were somewhat different. For one thing, many of the songs included on Self Portrait (released in June 1970) were covers, and not just from the expected traditional folk repertoire; instead, Dylan covered songs by his contemporaries like Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain,” in addition to oddities like Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” live cuts from his Isle of Wight performance with The Band the previous year, and several songs credited to “traditional.” In addition, the songs featured more unusual arrangements, some with choirs and strings, resulting in a markedly different sonic experience. Some of the songs were delivered in Dylan’s “crooning” Nashville Skyline voice, whereas others displayed his usual raspy vocal timbre (occasionally both appear in the same song). The result was an album largely panned by critics, though it experienced some chart success, climbing to #4 in the US and #1 in the UK. When New Morning was released in October 1970, and was comprised of all original songs, critics and the public exhaled strongly, pleased that Dylan was “back.” Not clear at the time of release was that some of the songs for both Self Portrait and New Morning were recorded during the same sessions, as Dylan alludes to in the earlier quote. And this new release of Bob Dylan 1970 (hereafter 1970) helps complete the genesis and development of these two recordings.

Ostensibly released as a copyright-extension set for Sony/Universal to protect the recordings from going into European public domain, 1970 follows in a series of similar Dylan albums with titles of years (e.g., 1963, 1964, etc.) containing numerous alternate takes presented in one collection. This three-CD set unearths 74 tracks of previously unreleased material presented chronologically from ten different sessions in 1970. If one were to combine the tracks from 1970 with those from the same sessions released on 2013’s Another Self Portrait (1969-71), a reasonably complete picture of Dylan’s studio activities during 1970 emerges. Whereas Another Self Portrait was curated to provide a more varied and flowing listening experience, containing music from 1969 and 1971 as well, 1970 presents its sessions in order, with multiple takes, jams, and some studio chatter so the listener can feel like a fly on the wall hearing the songs take shape. Though there are a few cuts from Self Portrait (e.g., “Alberta” and “Woogie Boogie”), most of the set consists of myriad diverse covers, the session with George Harrison, and many alternate versions of songs from New Morning

First, let’s get the “star power” aspect of the collection out of the way. One could reasonably assume the collection would attract fans of Dylan and the Beatles due to the cover billing of “special guest George Harrison.” As is well known, Dylan and Harrison were friends for many years, beginning when Dylan infamously introduced the Beatles to marijuana in 1964, followed by a Thanksgiving holiday Harrison spent at Dylan’s Woodstock house in 1968, Dylan’s rousing performance at Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh in 1971, and becoming bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys in the late 1980s/early 1990s. When Harrison joined Dylan in Columbia Studio B in New York on May 1, 1970, the Beatles had officially broken up and Harrison would not commence work on All Things Must Pass for another month (incidentally, starting the album with a Harrison-Dylan original, “I’d Have You Anytime”). Harrison happened to be in New York that day doing an interview with Howard Smith, and he joined Dylan in the studio. The thought of two friends and icons spending the day in the studio together sounds tantalizing. Rolling Stone even published a story in their May 28, 1970 issue called “Bob Dylan’s Secret Recording Session with George Harrison and Friends.” The story notes that the session was “kind of a nice, loose thing,” Dylan sang Beatles songs, and Harrison sang Dylan songs. Add Charlie Daniels on bass, producer Bob Johnston on keyboards, and session drummer Russ Kunkel and one should have the formula for a solid musical collaboration.

What did the quintet play that day? The selections can be divided into three categories: old Dylan originals (“Song To Woody,” “Mama, You Been On My Mind” [which Harrison would also record, later released on Early Takes, Vol. 1], “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “One Too Many Mornings,” “Gates Of Eden,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We’ve Never Met),” “I Threw It All Away,” “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “It Ain’t Me Babe”); seemingly random covers by other artists (“Yesterday,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “I Met Him On A Sunday,” “Cupid,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” “Matchbox,” “Your True Love,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky”); and some recent Dylan originals (“Telephone Wire,” “Fishing Blues,” “Sign On The Window,” and “If Not For You”). To say that most of this material is essential or even rewards repeated listening would be an overstatement. If one did not know Harrison was at this session, his contributions could easily be missed. He sings background vocals on nine of the songs, though his parts are understated and often barely audible. By contrast, Harrison’s guitar work occasionally shows some of his idiosyncratic touches, but sounds mostly like he is learning the songs (or asking others for the chords). On the one hand, hearing two music legends plow through a plenitude of Dylan and rock classics can be occasionally interesting and fun — “Song To Woody” is transformed into a rollicking waltz, “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is refashioned as a country march with some tasty guitar from Harrison, Dylan and Harrison have fun on a pair of Carl Perkins songs, and the duo does a fairly successful Everly Brothers imitation on “All I Have To Do Is Dream” — but on the other hand, many of the songs are marred by plodding bass by Daniels, as well as some truly desultory performances (e.g., “Yesterday”). But, despite its lack of varnish, it is nice to have an official release of this session for historical completion. 

If the Dylan/Harrison jamming is not really worth the price of admission, how does the rest of the material stack up on 1970? As someone who enjoys hearing the creative process of a song or album take shape, I would argue that there is some valuable material on these discs. For example, one can trace the development of several songs from New Morning that appear here in multiple takes. Let’s consider “If Not For You,” a song that Dylan recorded numerous times, and which Harrison later covered on All Things Must Pass. The session on May 1 with Harrison includes the version already released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, but 1970 also contains four additional takes done that same day: 

  • Take 1 features Dylan on piano, is fairly slow with lots of bass noodling and the musicians learning the parts, ending in a breakdown.
  • Take 2 has Dylan on acoustic guitar, is even slower, with busier bass and some awkwardness in the drums.
  • Take 3 improves substantially, with more parts added, including the harmonica. This take is similar in spirit to the version on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3
  • Another take is included (track 17), and the band reverts to the slow version, with lumbering drums and Dylan back on piano.

When the sessions reassemble on June 2, with David Bromberg, Ron Cornelius (guitar), Al Kooper (organ), Daniels, Kunkel, and unidentified background vocalists, the sound of the song becomes more countrified as heard in two takes. We hear a jaunty piano part, dobro, and a particularly raspy Dylan vocal familiar on New Morning, accentuated by a summer cold. The final versions of “If Not For You” appear on the August 12 session, where Dylan completely rerecords the song with Buzzy Feiten, Harvey Brooks, and Kooper in a different key, much faster, and similar to the final version on New Morning. Even though Dylan’s recording methods were often brisk, this set reveals his experimentation with “If Not For You” over several months in different styles. Beginning with the Harrison session on May 1, and ending with the August session, listeners can hear the song’s transformation to its final form on New Morning. For Harrison fans, this process is interesting because his own conception of the song on All Things Must Pass seems to originate in the May 1 session, and would later get the full Phil Spector treatment, whereas Dylan took the song in a completely different direction.

With this material in mind, is 1970 worth getting? It was not released on streaming services, so one has to buy the three-CD set (reasonably priced on Amazon at $16.79). One also gets liner notes by Michael Simmons that allude to the poor reviews of Self Portrait and give basic details and insights about the songs recorded on these sessions, highlighting how Dylan “recovers traditional folk, country, and blues, and then-current pop and country music.” Complete information for each session is also included, with the dates, titles, and personnel, as well as some photos from the era. For anyone interested in this mysterious and often-overlooked period in Dylan’s career, 1970 will be valuable as a reference and for its history. One may not listen often to the repetitive and ragged sessions, but this set is recommended for Dylan fans. 

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY John Hughes, University of Gloucestershire

If “nostalgia is death,” as Bob Dylan famously asserted, then how do we commemorate his 80th birthday? Any member of the commentariat, however humble, is aware of the responsibility at moments like this to offer some assessment of Dylan’s impact and lasting significance, mapping the man or his work onto some cultural, artistic, socio-political, historical, musicological, or literary critical context . . . Yet such assessments can also seem partial, or wrong-headed. They might help us remember, but they don’t capture what we need to celebrate. Equally unhelpful, the inner fan might feel embarrassed by a contrary impulse, simply to mumble words of gratitude. The comedy, of course, is that both responses are pure anathema to Dylan himself, who is famously allergic both a) to being lauded as the voice of his generation, and b) to fans’ eager desires for the-moment-they-have-waited-for-all-their-lives, ambushing the Nobel Laureate outside his hotel in Copenhagen, Chicago, or Cardiff.

My guiding thread here is to meditate on these things by emphasizing the kinds of forgetting that have always been internal to Dylan’s art. If Dylan is worthy of celebration it is perhaps because — arguably like all truly historical or creative figures — he changed his times, his art, and his audience by refusing to accept any of them, and by making us forget ourselves in the process. In his famous and evocative January 1988 speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen talked of how as a teenager he was both “thrilled and scared” by Dylan’s voice, as he first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on WMCA on his mother’s car radio. And most of Dylan’s admirers will have some similar story, telling of that moment, song, friend, or incident which suddenly put them on the wavelength of this music. For such listeners, like young Bruce, or like Dylan at Newport, or Miss Lonely, one loses oneself to reappear, in ways that mix loss and renewal, even exhilaration and peril. Those who respond like young Bruce did may never be the same person again, with his excitement at that “snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind” (Hedin, ed., 202). However, one needs also to acknowledge the intractable divisiveness that has always been part of the package, and to remember that no amount of commentary is going to convince Bruce’s mother that Dylan can sing, any more than one can argue Irving Welsh into believing the singer deserves the Nobel Prize. 

Biographically speaking, it is unnecessary here to reiterate Dylan’s own talent for self-forgetting, which has famously and successively defined his life as a series of wiped slates ever since he left Hibbing. Whether or not nostalgia is death, certainly a very extensive kind of creative forgetting has been life for Dylan himself, in so far as this self-styled “mathematical singer,” has always begun with subtraction and multiplication, deducting the self from its social conditions, in an emancipating embrace of self-uncertainty that finds ever new ways of contesting social fictions of identity, and of gauging the complexities of private experience. In the 1960s, when Dylan first took possession of his artistic empire, his songs appeared time and again to be staking out some utterly new ground zero from which to voice new beginnings. The magic of his compact with the listeners was paradoxically to be totally oblivious of them, but while sweeping them up by an audacious insurgency in which he was equally utterly forgetful of himself. The songs’ air of coming “as if out of nowhere,” in Greil Marcus’s terms, involved their drawing the listener into the slipstream of a voice that sought to sweep past the existing state of things, as it expanded into the vacuum of all that was yet to be invented in the turbulent politics, art, and audience of his time. Such extraordinary alignments of historical and artistic opportunity as took place in the 1960s are no more repeatable than youth itself, but one can still be amazed at the sheer mesmerizing inspiration of Dylan’s art in those times, and at its own capacity for self-difference. Over and again, his voice took down the old world to announce or imply new ones, imperiously coming through the air waves to summon his audience in utterly unforeseen and divergent ways: now voicing apocalyptic vision and reckoning (“A Hard Rain ‘s a-Gonna Fall”), now inaugural proclamation (“The Times They Are A-Changin’”), now emancipating vituperation (“Positively 4th Street”), now the irresistible coursings of desire (“I Want You”). . .

Undoubtedly, in recent years Dylan’s voice and the songs have lost this abandon, this imperious sway and reach, and his art has become narrower. In compensation, one might argue that the songs go deeper. The voice is cured and steeped in a lifetime’s accumulated craft and experience, and albums like Tempest, or Rough and Rowdy Ways sound out our fallen world and mortality with a compelling authority. The pendulum of self-forgetting still swings in these songs, if more locally, in the artful disjunctions at play within phrases, or a line, or pair of lines. Often on these two later albums, for example, this will take the form of a distinctive bait-and-switch technique that dislocates register, perspective, and tone by another small turn of the kaleidoscope. Within this narrower compass, though, the songs weave their effects of humor, beauty, and revelation, mixing up comedy and darkness, tradition and originality, the demotic and the profound. This artfulness of late Dylan is perhaps yet to be fully described, but at this juncture it is enough to express gratitude that it is yet another dimension to his immense and manifold achievement: as his work continues to provoke us to live and progress, by teaching us first to forget.

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Andrew Muir, The Leys School, Cambridge, UK

Is turning 80 any more a “significant juncture” than turning 79 or 81? No, it is not. Nevertheless, people are in thrall to the “0,” and thus we attribute spurious significance to it. In doing so, we grant ourselves an opportunity to pause and reflect. Here, I add to that impulse by taking stock of Dylan’s life and times and applauding his unparalleled achievements.

There have been other significant 0’s for Dylan. Back in 1971, Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip ran the following exchange: “Bob Dylan will be thirty years old this month.” “That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.” A simple exchange that, characteristically, contained much of import. It was saying goodbye to the perceived “golden age” of the 1960s. Dylan’s name was synonymous with that decade to such a degree — a seemingly unbreakable connection still haunts him to this day — that this cartoon poignantly portrayed children acknowledging the passing of naïve, youthful dreams. 

Twenty years later, Dylan reached 50 to an outpouring of acclaim for his work at a time when his stock had been at an unusually low ebb. There was also a new “birth” on this “special” birthday, that of The Bootleg Series. That first set was a collection of immense artistic value and, yes, “significance,” both in itself and for all the releases in the series it kick-started. 

Now Dylan is 80, yet another generally accepted “milestone year” and one that encourages reflection on the life so far lived. Bob Dylan’s has so far encompassed the reigns of the following presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt / Harry S. Truman / Dwight D. Eisenhower / John F. Kennedy / Lyndon B. Johnson / Richard Nixon / Gerald Ford / Jimmy Carter / Ronald Reagan / George H. W. Bush / Bill Clinton / George W. Bush / Barack Obama / Donald Trump / Joe Biden. That is quite a list, and “significance” can be attributed merely to having lived through so many, especially from an American perspective, with the country itself being so young. At 80, Dylan has been alive for almost a third of the USA’s history. That is an astounding concept from my outsider’s perspective; living, as I do, in a city with a university over 800 years old. Furthermore, although Dylan’s significance and influence are global, he is first and foremost an American artist, and he has been the country’s pre-eminent artist for approximately a quarter of its existence. 

Such scopes of time are difficult to keep in perspective. Here is a framework to help in that regard, especially for younger readers unburdened by the unstoppable passing of decades. Even restricting ourselves to Dylan’s professional life, his 1961 concert in New York stands midway between today and 1901, a year which began with Victoria on the British throne and McKinley, assassinated that September, as detailed at the beginning of “Key West,” as President of the US. If you extend the same contextual concept to Dylan’s life, then his year of birth, most aptly, especially considering his twenty-first-century output, stands midway between today and 1861, the year the US Civil War began.  

Lifespan aside, it is the work itself that matters and wherein lies Dylan’s mighty “significance.” There is no need to list his extraordinary achievements in a publication such as this. To name but one, Dylan taught us that popular music could express anything and everything about the world and human existence. It could ask and answer the question “how does it feel” by conveying the reality of living in these times and how we can (try to) transcend our time-bound, mortality-conscious condition. “Not bad for starters,” as they say, and, as we know, there is so much more besides. It would take very many volumes to cover all of Bob Dylan’s significant achievements; many have been written, and very many more are heralding this particular birthday. The surface is being scratched; decades of further studies lie ahead.

Dylan’s influence on others is another “significance”; not just his towering presence in nearly all popular music fields but also on other artists from varied disciplines. Such as novelists (e.g. Rushdie, Ishiguro), actors (e.g. Nighy and Rylance), and poets, including Maya Angelou, another of “America’s great voices of freedom,” as Jack Nicholson said of Dylan. Angelou is another artist who was still creating new work into her eighties. She once claimed that “Shakespeare must be a Black girl,” and she has also referred to Dylan in eye-catching phrases. Her words, a fitting place to finish this humble note on the occasion of Dylan’s 80th, came ten years ago, celebrating yet another “0” ending, Bob’s 70th birthday:

The truth is, Bob Dylan is a great American artist. His art, his talent is to speak to everyone, and when I say American, I think he’s a great African American artist, he’s a great Judeo-American artist, he’s a great Muslim American artist, he is a great Asian American artist, Spanish-speaking artist — he speaks for the American soul as much as does Ray Charles.

That mention of Ray Charles resonates “significantly” as I type this, with recent events in “Georgia, on my mind.” Angelou concluded her prescient remarks with these soberingly apt words for the situation we find ourselves in a decade later (italics mine):

There was a time when Bob Dylan was the new boy in the neighborhood. . . . When Bob came everyone loved him because he was what we all intended; he spoke for all of us. . . . He supported the people and the spirit of being American — to know that the mountains, the streams and the voting booths belong to us all at all times.

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Alessandro Carrera, University of Houston, Texas

Bob Dylan is eighty, and he is on his way home. His thoughts are still fixed on wandering (“Got a mind to ramble, got a mind to roam”), but he did begin his journey home (“I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow coming home”). This is how “Mother of Muses” ends, from Rough and Rowdy Ways. But his home isn’t the one he left in Minnesota. Maybe he will want to go back there, sooner or later, or maybe not because, as he says in “Mississippi,” “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Minnesota is home, but not his “real” home. He said it very clearly in the interview that punctuated Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: “I had ambition to set out and find like an odyssey of going home somewhere. I set out to find this home that I left a while back, and I couldn’t remember exactly where it was, but I was on my way there. And encountering what I encountered on the way was how I envisioned it all. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be and so, I’m on my way home.” 

In another century, Dylan asked Miss Lonely, how does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a rolling stone? Perhaps he was also asking himself about the paradox of being homeless yet having to go back home: Ulysses has been far from home for such a long time that for all he knows he could be homeless now. Yet after the siege comes the return, which is just as dangerous; some jealous god can always stop you before you touch the land. When Dylan took it out on Miss Lonely for having lived a life that was too protected and had never learned to survive in the street, he was also angry with himself for having deluded himself into thinking that the noble profession of folk hero, always on the side of the angels, would protect him from the cursed blessing of the street (or better, the road), where you never know if what you believed yesterday is still sacrosanct tomorrow. The teaching of the road is that everything changes — the encounters, the feedback from life, and above all, the style, which you must be able to wear and discard like a dress when the weather changes. The young may think that living on the road has the road itself as its destination. Who needs home after all? Indeed, there is no word in Dylan that has more resonance than “road” (the others are “wind,” “rain,” and “train”; “home” is not among them), but those who are no longer young know that this is not the case. 

Being on the road is exciting, intoxicating, heroic. If you are persistent, and lucky enough, the road gives you three thousand concerts all over the world, yet you still end up not having a home. But could it be otherwise? An artist (Dylan’s words again from No Direction Home), “has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he is at somewhere” because the false security achieved would make him forget the duty to be “constantly in a state of becoming.” 

Jamie Lorentzen, a Kierkegaard scholar who teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, believes he has figured out which house Dylan wants to go to. It’s not unfamiliar to him at all, and he needs no secret map to get there. It is the South of the United States, the place where all the good and all the bad of the great country were born, between Mississippi and Louisiana, where Highway 61 goes to die at the gates of New Orleans — the only place in America that before Hurricane Katrina “was better than America” ​​(Leonard Cohen, Samson in New Orleans). Dylan has already written in Chronicles, Volume One that the highway that brought the blues from south to north, from Memphis to Chicago and from Chicago to Duluth, where Dylan was born, was his road: “It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors. The Mississippi River, the bloodstream of the blues, also starts up from my neck of the woods. I was never too far away from any of it. It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”[1]

Lorentzen is right, except that a question arises: if Dylan knows where his home is, then why hasn’t he already gone back? Why does his Never-Ending Tour deny the very possibility of arriving at somewhere if the last home, which is also the first, can only be the South? Well, because Dylan knows, and all his work is there to prove it, that that house is already occupied. He can only borrow it, and it will never be his. It is the home of the blues, but he did not create the blues and neither did the Jews nor the Anglo-Saxons, the Irish nor the Italians — although all can say, each in their own way, that they have learned from it. It was created by the poorest African Americans and no one can take it away from them, not even by learning all their guitar licks note by note. 

Dylan said he stayed in Mississippi one day too long. He sang it right in “Mississippi,” a song recorded in 2001 that recreates obliquely the landscape of the early 1960s. In the fall of 1963, when Dylan was already a name and nothing more than a name, he had actually gone there, to Greenwood, Mississippi for a voter registration rally, something for which you could be shot, and even today it might not be an easy ride. It was, possibly, the only authentic militant act in his life, yet it left its mark. He may have never absorbed the arcana of political struggle, but from the faces of the Black sharecroppers to whom he sang “With God on Our Side” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” he learned what dignity is. And he meditated on it until he wrote “Dignity”:

Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel

Thin man lookin’ at his last meal

Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield

For dignity.

Freedom can sometimes be twisted for ambiguous political means; dignity cannot.

In his personal odyssey, Dylan has found many houses, all made of music. But Bob Dylan’s real house exists only if he continues looking for it, and there is reason to fear that when he stops no one will be able to resume the journey from the place where he interrupted it. In the meantime, a map of Dylan’s America can be drawn: New York through the eyes of the young man who went there to meet Woody Guthrie, Baltimore where Hattie Carroll met a death that was as racist as it was careless, many rows of desolation — the only place where something worth telling happens — the lowlands of the sad-eyed lady, the watchtower on top of which princes learn that Babylon has fallen, the Mexican Egypt where the goddess Isis prowls, the Garden of Gethsemane where none but One understands that something is happening there and you don’t know what it is, the Caribbean of Jokerman the idol-juggler, the infinite Texas of the pearl-toothed girl from Brownsville, and then again the Highlands of Scotland (but there are “highlands” in the U.S. as well), Scarlet Town which is Desolation Row four centuries earlier, and Key West, a place that has the consistency of a postcard yet is the source of all clandestine radio broadcasts like the shortwave radios that from Mexico and Louisiana reached at night the room of teenager Robert Zimmerman who listened to Lead Belly and Muddy Waters wondering from which fiery universe those voices might have come. 

These are Bob Dylan’s “stations.” Some he visited only once; in others, he stayed longer and then left again. And it will be no coincidence that the house where he lives, in Point Dume, Malibu, has never entered any of his songs. Therefore, the question is, how can you go back to where you’ve never been? 

If I don’t come back,

you should know that I’ve never


My travel

was all about staying

here, where I have never been.[2]

If Dylan could read these lines by Italian poet Giorgio Caproni, perhaps he would see something of himself in them.


[1] Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, pp. 240-241. Quoted (like the interview excerpts from No Direction Home), in Jamie Lorentzen, “Dylan’s Direction Home through the World’s Might Opposites,” in Tearing the World Apart: Bob Dylan and the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Nina Goss and Eric Hoffman, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017, p. 129.

[2] “Se non dovessi tornare, / sappiate che non sono mai / partito. / Il mio viaggiare / è stato tutto un restare / qua, dove non fui mai.” Giorgio Caproni (1912-1990), Biglietto lasciato prima di non andar via (“Note Left Before I didn’t Leave”), in L’opera in versi (“The Poetic Works”), ed. by Luca Zuliani, introd. by Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, Milan: Mondadori, 1998, p. 427.

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Michael Gray, Independent Scholar

I’m starting this on May 14, 2021 — fifty-five years to the day since I first attended a Bob Dylan concert. It was at the Odeon Cinema, London Road, Liverpool, England, May 14, 1966, 7pm. I was 19. And, lawdy, now I’m heading for 75 and I find Bob Dylan still alive, productive and 80 years old.

If you’ll pardon the avian pun, I’m ducking out of overviews and grand comparisons to focus on one small but typically interesting aspect of his enormous body of work: the invoking of birds — birds in general and birds of particular species — and to consider how he deploys them.

I’m prompted by the happy way the white dove with which he flew into so many people’s consciousness back near the starting-point — Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand? — returns on his most recent album, again invoked as a symbol of peace: If I had the wings of a snow-white dove / I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love.

Having had that prompt, I suppose I assumed there’d be the handful of bird allusions recurrently in my head and perhaps as many again. How wrong I was: there are dozens!

In performance he has sung traditional and other people’s bird-centered songs: “The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird” very early on, Stanley Carter’s “White Dove” in 1997-2000 and “Humming Bird” in 2001-2. Polly Vaughan is shot when mistaken for a swan in the traditional song so exquisitely sung by Dylan at the 1992 Dave Bromberg Chicago sessions and perversely kept unreleased. At the Supper Club, NYC, a year later, one performance included Blind Boy Fuller’s “Weeping Willow,” in which Dylan brilliantly conflates Fuller’s line, That weeping willow and that mourning dove, to sing the Baudelairean, The weeping willow mourning like a dove. There’s another dove simile in the often revisited traditional “Pretty Peggy-O,” first sung live by Dylan in 1961 and studio-recorded on his debut album. On World Gone Wrong a wily parrot is center stage in Dylan’s superb re-creation of the traditional “Love Henry.” In “Pretty Saro” (on Another Self Portrait) Dylan sings of wild birds in a lonesome place. In 2016 at Berkeley he sang the Lynyrd Skynyrd anthem “Free Bird.” In “Corrina, Corrina,” sung live in 1962 and included on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a captive bird whistles and sings, but its company is, like all else, meaningless in Corrina’s absence.

Those last three were unspecified sorts of bird. Such undelineated feathered friends make their presence felt in a number of Dylan’s own officially released songs across the decades. Sometimes they’re mere similes — Girls like birds fly away — on “’Til I Fell In Love With You” (from Time Out Of Mind); Fly away little bird, fly away, flap your wings / Fly by night like the Early Roman Kings (from Tempest); and implicit in “Watching The River Flow,” in which he sings If I had wings and I could fly. . . At other times these birds are offered as both real and to be identified with — singer as simile for bird — as on “You’re A Big Girl Now”: 

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence

He’s singin’ his song for me, at his own expense

And I’m just like that bird

Singin’ just for you.

On “Sign On The Cross,” the song’s fleeting mystery includes The bird is here.

On more than one other Blood On The Tracks song, too, he sees his troubled plight in similar terms. On “Meet Me in the Morning” (as on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) there’s a rooster (poultry made poetry) and the singer feels just like that rooster; meanwhile other, unspecified birds are flyin’ low and he feels so exposed. On a more important track, he is like a bird that flew / Tangled up in blue.

That wasn’t the first song in which the bird symbolizes the human creature, ostensibly yet not truly free, like Freewheelin’ Bob: he was comparably trapped in “Ballad In Plain D,” posing that song’s great final question: Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

At times Dylan’s birds are nicely present, out there in the dark, part of a song’s atmosphere, heard but not seen. There’s no specific bird more beautifully depicted than this, from “Blind Willie McTell”: 

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents

The stars above the barren trees

Was his only audience.

In “Workingman’s Blues #2,” on Modern Times, we’re told that, In the dark I hear the night birds call, and on “Under Your Spell,” on Knocked Out Loaded, Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds. It’s a sound he misses in the dark part of the year in “Moonlight” on Love and Theft: The seasons they are turnin’ / And my sad heart is yearnin’ / To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone.

It’s a sound he envisages being unable to hear at all without his lover’s presence in “If Not For You” on New Morning: Winter would have no spring / Couldn’t hear the robin sing / I just wouldn’t have a clue. But as with the hoot owl, doves, cuckoos and roosters, that’s a specific bird, the American robin (its eggs Bob Dylan blue).

It’s striking how many other species are netted in the songs — literally netted, in the case of every sparrow falling in “Every Grain Of Sand.”[1] In “The Gates Of Eden,” while “wicked birds of prey” pick up on “breadcrumb sins,” the singer tries to harmonize with words / The lonesome sparrow sings. In “Moonlight,” there’s not only those songbirds but also the specific the geese into the countryside have flown, and here Dylan is echoing that lovely line from “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese (in turn an echo of the pre-war blues songs in which wild geese fly west). Dylan’s “Country Pie” cites a singular goose.

There are other species galore, real and symbolic: quail in “Catfish,” an eagle in “You Changed My Life”; a mockingbird in “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”; a bluebird in “Up To Me”; more swans — “Ballad Of The Gliding Swan” and a black swan in “Highlands,” another rooster in “New Morning,” the cuckoo’s return in “High Water,” and further parrots in “Farewell Angelina” and “Simple Twist Of Fate.” Bob as Alias gives us “Turkey Chase.”

There are more stalwart doves in “Dink’s Song” and “Shelter From The Storm”; seagulls in “When The Ship Comes In”; a duck and a ducktrapper in “I Shall Be Free” and “Floater (Too Much To Ask)”; crows in “Black Crow Blues” and “Tiny Montgomery”; the raven in “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”; a peacock in “Caribbean Wind”; and pigeons in “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Three Angels.” In an early “Visions of Johanna” there is Keats’s nightingale code, which flies back to us in “Jokerman.” Between those two magnificent songs comes “Changing Of The Guard,” in which A messenger arrive[s] with a black nightingale.

Finally, while I may have forgotten still further examples[2], I haven’t forgotten the birds in the title track of Under the Red Sky. Perhaps, though Dylan doesn’t say so, they’re blackbirds: that’s implied, given that nursery-rhyme tradition has it that they are the birds, four and twenty of them, baked in a pie. Here, though, it is the unfortunate girl and boy who get baked in the pie, while the birds escape. You can hear that as Dylan’s own story. So many of those who taste even a modicum of his level of fame, or even brush against his, fall victim to catastrophe and early death. A lot of people gone, a lot of people I knew. He has escaped death so many times, surviving to become a still-active octogenarian. He has indeed obeyed his own injunction: let the bird sing, let the bird fly.


[1] In Song & Dance Man III: The Art Of Bob Dylan, 1999, I note the context of Christ’s words in Matthew to which Dylan alludes: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” The reference is to sparrows being sold. Birds were caught in snares like fishes in nets. The phrase “on the ground” here may be a mistranslation from the Ancient Greek, in which “to the earth” is almost identical to “into a snare,” which may have been intended. And Christ seems to have borrowed his “one of them shall not fall . . . without your Father” from the ancient Hebrew manuscript “Bereshith Rabba” (Section 79, Folio 77): “sitting at the mouth of the cave, they observed a fowler stretching his nets to catch birds . . . Then the Rabbi said, ‘Even a bird is not taken without Heaven. How much less the life of a man!’”

In ‘Father Of Night’ on New Morning, that same God is the Father, who teacheth the bird to fly.

[2] I’m grateful to my wife, the foodwriter Sarah Beattie, for finding a number of my examples.


In 1964, I was given the opportunity to play one record of American folk music a week on the all-Italy state radio station. The first song I chose was Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”  I still brag about having been the first to play Bob Dylan on the Italian radio.

At age 80, Bob Dylan has been part of the life of several generations across the world. I was born in the same year as Dylan, and I first heard his voice in 1963, when I brought home The Times They Are a-Changin’. The Italian singer-songwriter star Francesco De Gregori — a Bob Dylan fan and translator — learned about him from an older brother who gave him a record of Blowin’ in the Wind around 1966. In Shillong, India, I heard about the local rock singer Lu Majaw, who turned into a priest of the Bob Dylan cult after he heard the same song in Calcutta in 1965. Silvia Baraldini, a revolutionary activist in 1960s America, first heard Dylan in Nashville Skyline (1969). Alessandro Carrera, one of the finest international Bob Dylan scholars and critics, writes: “I have been listening to Dylan since 1970.” Marco Rossari, a 1973-born author and translator, first heard him in 1979, and bought his first album, Oh Mercy, in 1989. Gaia Resta, a 1979-born teacher and translator, discovered Dylan in 1993, at age 14, “from some TV program where they played excerpts from Rolling Thunder Revue Tour.”

I remember the thrill when I first realized that the opening lines of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (“Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son / Where have you been, my darling young one?”) were identical to those of a ballad I had heard as “Lord Randal” on a Harry Belafonte record six years before and a Ewan McColl album I bought in 1961 (“O whaur hae ye been, Lord Randal my son? / O whaur hae ye been, my bonnie young man?”), and on a 1963 record by Italian folksinger Sandra Mantovani, as “Il Testamento dell’Avvelenato” (“the last will of the poisoned young man”) in Italian (“Where did you go last night, my flowery and gentle son?”). 

The ballad is first mentioned in an Italian play in 1629 and in a Scottish manuscript in 1715, and is included in the canonic collections of English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child (1882-88) and Costantino Nigra’s  Canti popolari del Piemonte  (1888). Both have spread across Europe and the Atlantic and lived on in oral tradition into the third millennium. It was collected in Northern Italy as late as 2005; in 1973, I recorded a version in a working-class neighborhood in Rome, sung by a Southern Italian farm worker. On the one hand, the connection between the ballad and its long, cross-Atlantic history gave me a sense of the depths and width of Bob Dylan’s connection to the historical past. On the other hand, as it has stayed with me all these years, “Hard Rain” has represented both an apocalyptic vision of the future and key to the meaning of contemporary events as they unfolded. It made a lot of sense to me that the song I had chosen in 1964 to inaugurate my brief radio career would also be the one chosen by Patti Smith to celebrate Bob Dylan at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2016.

All Bob Dylan scholars and critics recognize the connection between the incipit of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lord Randal”; yet, in most cases, they go no further. Thus, Alessandro Carrera comments that the ballad “has evidently very little to do with what Bob Dylan made of it.” The dialogue between Dylan’s classic and the ballad, however, goes much deeper than that.

Both “Lord Randal” and “Hard Rain” are dialogues between a mother and a son who leaves home, walks and crawls through dangerous unknown lands and deadly encounters, discovers evil, violence, deception, death, and comes home to tell the tale and die. In the ballad, the young man has been out hunting in the wild woods, has been poisoned by his “true love,” and asks his mother to make up his dying bed before he makes his final will. “Hard Rain” resets the story to a different context and time, but here, too, the hero tells about the horrors he has encountered out in the wilderness and prepares to sing his last song before he starts sinking. Both the ballad and the song are about the relationship between the home and the wilderness, the safe familiar present and the dangers of the alien future, the meaning of history as possibility or nightmare. Much of the power of Dylan’s masterpiece, then, lies in the way in which it incorporates the historical depth of the ancient ballad, projects it toward a modern and post-modern imagination, and illuminates both. It springs out of a magical moment in which Bob Dylan was between worlds and in touch with both, still part of the folk music revival but ready to leave it for shores unknown.

Here, however, I would like to focus less on what song and ballad have in common than on an apparently minor yet revealing difference. In the over two hundred English and Italian variants of “Lord Randal” that I have been able to consult, the hero is “bonnie” in Scotland, “handsome” in Kentucky and North Carolina, “gentle” and “flowery” in Italy. But never “blue-eyed.”  

The blue-eyed son, like a new-born baby, has the clear eyes of innocence: he does no evil, indeed he does not even know that there is such a thing as evil in the world (“we never thought we could get very old. . . the thought never hit that the one road we traveled would ever shatter or split,” he sang about his youth in “Bob Dylan’s Dream”). The loss of innocence as the price for adult experience is a classic theme in American literature: the naive adolescent hero goes out into the world, like Huckleberry Finn down the Mississippi, and is initiated to the knowledge and the presence of evil and death. In his initiation journey, Dylan’s blue-eyed son meets icons of innocence violated: a newborn baby surrounded by wolves, young children wielding guns and sharp swords, a child near a dead pony. The one road he travels on shatters into “six crooked highways” and the idyllic “home in the valley” becomes the gothic “damp dirty prison.” 

Like Emerson’s eyeball, the blue-eyed son’s pupil is transparent — but only in one direction: it denotes the inner purity of his soul, but no “misty currents” (Emerson) connect it to nature outside. The mountains are “misty,” the oceans are dead, the forests are “sad,” reminiscent less of Emerson’s benevolent woods than of the “wild wood” where Lord Randal meets his fate, or even of those “dark, demonic woods” out of which Dylan himself says he has come. About the same time as Emerson found vision and illumination in the woods, Nathaniel Hawthorne reminded his contemporaries that “[t]he founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” The mouth of a graveyard is where the blue-eyed hero steps at the beginning of his journey; and the “damp dirty prison” is what he will meet in the end.

But there is more. Not long after Dylan sang of the blue-eyed son, Toni Morrison debuted with The Bluest Eye (1970): the story of an African American child obsessed with the dream of having blue eyes, like the child icons she sees in movies and ads. As a rule, Black people do not have blue eyes. Which is why, in their gospel version of “Hard Rain,” the Staple Singers change it to “my wondering son” (2015), and Jimmy Cliff’s 2011 reggae version is about a “brown-eyed,” not to a “blue-eyed” son.

Bob Dylan’s blue-eyed son, then, must be white. The difference, however, is less about color than about the expectations that go with it. Black children and mothers do not need journeys into the unknown in order to know what awaits them in the wilderness outside. In Bruce Springsteen’s “Black Cowboys,” little Rainey Williams makes his way to the playground through spaces as filled with danger and death as those discovered by Dylan’s hero; his mother does not ask him who he met, what he saw, what he heard — she just wants him to come home and stay inside. Unlike the mother in Dylan’s song, Black parents speak to their children before they leave home. As mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has a Black son, explained after the police killed Eric Garner in New York: “[My wife] Chirlane and I have had to talk to [our son] Dante for years, about the dangers he may face . . . we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”  And Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin: “On these streets, Charles / You’ve got to understand the rules.”

Only those who believe in innocence — their own, and others’ — only those who leave home believing that they have rights and are safe — can be shocked by the revelation of violence and evil. Student activists of the 60s were surprised when they realized that the police didn’t beat only the workers but them, too: “You know, the big demonstrations were those of the workers, not us students, so we were totally naïve. At first the march was playful, a holiday, a game. Then it turned out that it was no game at all. They gave us a real serious drubbing.” Or the tragic events, the killing of a young man, the police riots during the 2001 Big 8 conference in Genoa, when the “gentle” and “flowery” young people of the third millennium lost their “innocence”: 

We were out in the street, dancing, playing living theater and all. They come at us from behind. . . . And I couldn’t understand what was going on. . . . I mean, shedding all at once the belief of twenty-one years that the police is there to protect you. . . . I was wondering — why are they attacking us? . . . Here I am, dancing, with sunflowers in my hair, and you beat me up? Why?

Of course, Bob Dylan wasn’t thinking of Genoa, 2001, when he wrote “Hard Rain” in 1963. But he possessed the vision that can turn a historical moment into a timeless archetype — which is, in the end, the “inner substance” that makes a song a folk song and keeps it alive. Bob Dylan can wreak this wonder without even having to wait for the years to pass. He hardly ever writes “topical” songs, and when he does they are not his best; but out of historic events — the murder of Medgar Evers, the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, the atomic nightmare of the 50s and 60s — he distills warnings for all time. His songs never lose touch with immediate events, but reach for the deep forces that shape them. They consign the news of the day to the long duration of archetype or myth, so that the story of the present foreshadows that of the future. The “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” announce the child soldiers of the civil war in Sierra Leone; and we have all seen “a white man who walked a black dog” in the images from Abu Ghraib. The “one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’” foreshadow the police squadrons marching in formation in Genoa, the dark visors of their helmets lowered to cover their eyes because, as we know, “the executioner’s face is always well hidden.”

The twenty-one-year-old Bob Dylan of 1963 stays with me as we both turn 80, and still helps me make sense of the tragedies of today. In a widely-seen set of photographs, African migrants (many from the former Italian colony of Eritrea) face helmeted police on the boulders by the shore of Ventimiglia, near the French-Italian border. There they are camped precariously, waiting in vain to cross over. Today’s world migrants are the ones who literally walk and crawl over crooked highways, step in the middle of deserts and sad forests, stand in front of oceans filled with death, are met by police with bleeding hammers or white men walking black dogs, whisper and speak unheeded with broken tongues and end up in damp dirty prisons. The faces of the police are well-hidden, but those of the migrants are clear, and they all have in common one thing: their eyes are brown.

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Timothy Hampton, University of California, Berkeley

Bob Dylan’s epochal recording, Blonde on Blonde (1966) hits its stride on its third track, the majestic “Visions of Johanna.” Here the great themes of the album — memory, debt, betrayal, fidelity — come into focus, against the backdrop of a smoky room, after hours:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft

In this room, the heat pipes just cough

The country music station plays soft

But there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off.

The rhymes of the four lines beautifully reflect the sense of stasis that penetrates the song. The vowels of the four rhyme words link up through assonance. But within this sameness there is difference. The first and third rhyme exactly, as do the second and fourth.  There’s stasis, but also change, in the rhymes, as there is in the story of the song.  

What strikes one most powerfully, however, is the final line. There’s nothing to turn off. We get it. But why is there “nothing, really nothing” to turn off? Why the insistence? Why the herky-jerky clause? It is true that the line mirrors the metrics of what precedes — two short syllables followed by a long syllable, ta-ta-taaa. But it gives us too much information. Dylan could just as easily have sung, “But there’s nothing to turn off.”  The melody would have worked fine. What kind of sentence is this, anyway? Would you ever say “there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off” in a normal conversation? In what context? It’s a line that calls attention to its own artificiality, to the fact that it is colloquial diction, used in a completely uncommon way.

This little verbal blip teaches us a number of things that we can recall, now, at Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, as we listen as fully as we can to the whole range of his music. In the moment of Blonde on Blonde it announces the curious, conversational mode of that album. After the somewhat grand public pronouncements of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, we are now moving to a quieter, more private lyric mode, in which the lyricist seems to be talking to intimates, or in some cases, as here, to himself. It’s a new step forward in Dylan’s marvelous mastery of English poetic diction.

But it also delivers a message about what makes up art, and about the relationship between poetry and social experience. Though Dylan plays with “Visions of Johanna” on various outtakes (released, now, on The Cutting Edge), “nothing, really nothing” appears to have been part of the lyric throughout the different versions. Either way, by its emphasis, it calls our attention to what we might “turn off” if we were, for example, in the business of turning things off. We could turn off the flickering lights. We could turn off the heat to keep the old radiator from rattling. Or we could turn off the country station. But the point is that to turn off any of these things would be to shut down the moment, to impoverish the density of this scene, this instant, this memory. There is really nothing to turn off.

We are being educated here, taught about poetry and the senses. There is no “I” in the scene, so far. Only a vague “we,” an undefined “you” (“tempting you to defy it”), and a mention of a mysterious woman called Louise. The real story only begins a few lines later, when the singer announces that he’s overcome by visions of Johanna. Dylan is here working as a stage manager, a manipulator of décor. As the poet Rimbaud reminds us, poetry is built out of a mixing of all senses, a confusion of our learned categories for making sense of the world. Here, Dylan is applying this disorientation to set a scene in which there is no hierarchy of the senses. Everything, from the most irritating radiator noise to the most beautiful country ballad, is essential to the moment. The extra language, “really nothing,” is, thus, not really nothing at all. It is, in fact, the most important detail in the scene, since it reminds us that everything is music, that sensory experience makes up the material of art.

This is one of the lessons that Dylan has taught us — to open our ears, not only to the grand multi-part harmonies of the Staple Singers, or the zinging guitar solos of the Butterfield Blues Band, but to the music of everyday life. And of everyday speech. Not only do the songs blend high culture and street speech, Blake and Bebop, but the performances are marked by moments where we learn to listen to things we never thought were music. We hear it in the mumbled lyric of “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” “When, uh, he built a fire on Main Street,” where the “uh” is as important as anything else in the line. Or in the interjection in the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone,” (“to nnnnnahh, be on your own”). Or in the rickety vocal duets on Desire, where Emmylou Harris struggles to harmonize with Dylan’s eccentric delivery. All of these bits of sound — these grunts, groans, hesitations, rattles, misplayed notes, urgings — are as integral to Dylan’s work as the harmonica solos. They are the stuff of everyday speech, but also, when integrated into the form of the song, the stuff of great art. Like the subway tickets stuck into the paintings of Picasso, or the bits of advertising talk in the sonnets of Ted Berrigan, they are Dylan’s way of teaching us that beauty is all around us. The poetry of the everyday is part of the compositional world of his songs. They are not the only place it can be found. But without them, we might not pay attention to it. Listen! There is really nothing to turn off. With Dylan, we can hear music everywhere, in the heat pipes, in the country music station — but, also, in the sky above, in the tall grass, and the ones we love.