Blind Willie McTell. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Crossing the Rubicon. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Highlands. Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Isis. Copyright © 1975 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2003 by Ram’s Horn Music. All rights reserved.

Murder Most Foul. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Red River Shore. Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Sara. Copyright © 1975, 1976 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2003, 2004 by Ram’s Horn Music


All songs written by Bob Dylan except Isis, written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy.

François Guillez, Bob Dylan in the 2020s: Rough and Rowdy Ways, Shadow Kingdom, and All That Philosophy. Tangible Press, 2023.

Clinton Heylin, The Double Life of Bob Dylan Volume 2: 1966-201: ‘Far Away From Myself’. London: Bodley Head, 2023.

John Lewis, Whirly Gig: Inside Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind Sessions. Cambridge, Maryland: Dorchester Power and Light, 2022.

Harriet Archer is a lecturer in early modern English literature at the University of St Andrews, where she teaches modules on the English Renaissance, Bob Dylan, and popular music, and is the author of Unperfect Histories: the Mirror for Magistrates, 1559-1610 (Oxford University Press, 2017).


David Bond graduated from Johnston College, the University of Redlands, in 1975, with a BA in Religion with a minor in Transpersonal Psychology. He attended Duke University Divinity School and graduated from West Virginia University with a Master of Social Work in 1979. He is a practicing psychotherapist and has been writing poetry for over forty years.


Nicholas Bornholt is a freelance writer, editor and a co-creator of He holds a BA and MRes in English from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.


Jonathan Hodgers received his PhD in music from Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches in popular music. His core areas of interest are song lyrics, the music of the 50s and 60s, audiovisual aesthetics, and music in movies. Dylan and Cinema, his forthcoming monograph for Routledge, brings together these strands by examining Bob Dylan as a filmmaker.


James O’Brien is a writer and filmmaker. He holds a PhD in editorial studies and his dissertation focuses on Bob Dylan’s unpublished writings. Oxford University Press and others have issued his writings about Dylan’s work. OUP published his annotated bibliography of works about the director John Cassavetes.


Thomas Palaima is Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics at University of Texas, Austin and a MacArthur fellow. He has written over 500 commentaries, reviews, book chapters, features, and poems on what human beings do with their lives. These have appeared in the Times Higher Education, Michigan War Studies Review, Arion, Athenaeum Review, The Texas Observer, the Los Angeles Times, and

Scott F. Parker is author of Being on the Oregon Coast: An Essay on Nature, Solitude, the Creation of Value, and the Art of Human Flourishing and A Way Home: Oregon Essays as well as editor of Conversations with Joan Didion and Conversations with Ken Kesey, both published by University Press of Mississippi. He teaches writing at Montana State University.


Robert Reginio teaches modern literature in the Division of English at Alfred University. He currently serves as the Hagar Professor of the Humanities at the University. This spring he will be working in the Bob Dylan Archive researching the composition of the songs that would make their way onto the album John Wesley Harding.


Christopher Rollason is author of numerous articles and papers on Bob Dylan, and of the book Read Books, Repeat Quotations: the Literary Bob Dylan (2021). He has presented papers at major Dylan conferences, including Caen, France (2005) and Tulsa (2019). Recently, he was plenary speaker at a conference on Dylan and popular culture, University of Jaén, Spain.


Richard F. Thomas is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard University, where his teaching and research interests are focused on Hellenistic Greek and Roman literature, intertextuality, and the works of Bob Dylan. Books include Virgil and the Augustan Reception (Cambridge 2001), Bob Dylan’s Performance Artistry (Oral Tradition 22.1 (2007)), and Why Bob Dylan Matters (2017).

The Dylan Review spoke to producer and engineer Mark Howard about his book of photographs Recording Icons / Creative Spaces and his work with Dylan on Time Out of Mind and Oh Mercy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Dylan Review: When did you start taking photos? And why did you start photographing recording studios?

Mark Howard: I started taking photos to document things in the studio, like what guitars people were playing, what instruments were used for other songs, and then it turned into a big file of all these amazing photos of the houses that I recorded in. I always take photos of the interiors of the houses as a kind of documenting. Over the years I had so much of it. I started filing through picking my favorite ones and it kind of turned into a playlist of photos on my computer to show people where I was working. And then I was working in New Orleans at a studio and the owner said “you’ve got to put a book out!” so I said “okay, I’ll start assembling,” and we put this book of photos out.

It’s taken with various cameras. It’s done with what’s called time lapse photography. I would put my camera on the console and it would take a photo every 30 seconds. So I would have hundreds of photos, still photos, and I would go through and pick the best one. I was capturing people in their natural habitat – It sounds like animals. If you hold a camera up to an artist in a studio they suddenly act differently. So I kind of caught them without them knowing.


DR: Is it like choosing from twenty takes of a song, when you’ve got to pick one photo from a hundred different shots?

MH: Exactly. Some of it was hard to edit because I loved so many of them. I captured so many great images. The photos of Neil Young are just fantastic. You would never be able to get that kind of shot with a photographer in a studio filming. So it was a cool way to document.


DR: Do you have a favorite photo?

MH: I would say it’s either one of Joni Mitchell sitting smoking cigarettes while I was recording her, or one of Robert Plant where he is working on lyrics.


DR: And what about Dylan? He certainly doesn’t like being photographed. It must be fascinating to get a candid take.

MH: On the Oh Mercy record, I had a Polaroid [camera] and Dylan said “don’t take any photos, taking photos is stopping time.” But I sneaked a couple out. I would have to take Polaroids of the console in those days to document where my settings were. So, I’d just do it on these Polaroids as it was an old desk with no recall in those days. So I was able to capture Dylan there with his hoodie on.


DR: Oh Mercy was recorded in New Orleans. How did you come to record in New Orleans?

MH: It happened because I was working on a record [in New Orleans] with the Neville Brothers who had recorded two of Bob Dylan’s songs, and Bono from U2 had been talking to Dylan and he said, “you should check out this guy Daniel Lanois, he might be good to make a record with.”

So while we were making the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon record, Dylan was playing the Audubon Zoo here [in New Orleans] and we got an invitation to go. After the show, Dylan invited us onto his bus and he asked us, “what are you guys doing here in New Orleans?” We told him we were making a record with the Neville Brothers and they cut two of his songs. He said, “what’s that sound like?” So we said, “well why don’t you come to the studio tomorrow and have a listen?” He came into the studio and heard the version of Aaron Neville’s “With God On Our Side” and that sold him on it. It’s like it was the most beautiful version he’d ever heard, you know, Aaron singing. So that got us the invitation to make the record there.

We were planning on leaving New Orleans and I went to New Mexico to find a location to make his record. I found Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Santa Fe and it was beautiful; a big old adobe house. It was amazing. Great big rooms, high ceilings, it’s perfect for recording. And so I came back to New Orleans, and I told Daniel, “I’ve found the perfect location.” He hops on the phone with Dylan and tells him that we’ve got a killer location to record in – Santa Fe, it’s Georgia O’Keeffe’s house – and Bob says, “what Santa Fe? I can’t go to Santa Fe. The altitude’s too high. You can’t sing that high.” So Lanois said, “alright, we’ll make it here in New Orleans, below sea level, and it’ll be good for singing.” So we ended up staying.


DR: How did New Orleans influence the record? Would it have been different if you’d made it in some hi-fi studio in New York?

MH: Totally. And it had a lot to do with the players we had drop in. Rockin’ Doopsie, he came in and played on it, and we had Cyrille Neville playing Congas. Rhythmically it really was impacted by the New Orleans sound and rhythms. Definitely.


DR: How much does the room, studio, or a particular city, influence a recording session?

MH: As you see in my book, it’s interesting locations that inspire people. I think it’s got a lot to do with people being comfortable in their surroundings.


DR: Where did the sound of Oh Mercy come from? Did Dylan or Lanois have a specific idea in mind, or was it a natural mix of these New Orleans influences?

MH: Once we got into the studio, we started with some beautiful instruments that would influence how the record would sound. We didn’t even have a band in the beginning. It was just Dylan, a Roland 808 drum machine, and Dan. “Most of the Time” and a couple of other ones just came out of the box that way. They were really more up close and personal. I’ve always preferred the sound of Oh Mercy to Time Out of Mind. I think that they’re both cool records, but Oh Mercy is still in my heart the most.


DR: Dylan’s famously unconventional in the studio. Was he a challenge to record?

MH: In the beginning, on Oh Mercy, it was a difficult situation because we didn’t know Bob and Bob didn’t know us. He was just trying to figure out how it was going to work. We recorded in the dining room of this house, in which the kitchen and dining room were all open in one room. We had the dining room set up with the control room and we ended up making the whole record there. He wouldn’t wear headphones, so we had to set up like a live situation, where he had a floor monitor in front of him and his voice would come out of that, and I would go and set up a mic while he was sitting. I would put the microphone in front of Dylan and he would turn sideways, so I’d put it over there and he’d turn the other way. I would sit on the floor and just follow him around with the mic like a film guy would do.

So it was kind of strange. For the first two weeks, he wouldn’t even acknowledge that I was in the room or say my name. And then – I’m a motorcycle enthusiast so I had a couple of Harley-Davidsons in the courtyard – one day, he walks up to me and goes, “hey Mark, can you get me one of those bikes?” I said, “yeah, sure.” And so he says, “well, I’ll work out the money for you and you can find me a cool bike.” I had a friend in Florida who sold some beautiful vintage Harley-Davidsons. So I ended up getting him this really beautiful 1966 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. It showed up on Monday when we’re starting again, so he came in early to see the bike and I showed him how to start it and stuff like that. I took him for a ride around New Orleans, up along the levee and then down to the plantation homes. He was happy that I got him this bike and we just talked about motorcycles mostly. So it was kind of a cool situation between me and him in that world.


DR: How important do you think that is to record-making, not the technical aspects, but just making someone feel comfortable?

MH: Yeah, I think that and gaining somebody’s trust. If you don’t have their trust and they don’t trust you, it’s very difficult. But if you say “let’s try this” and it’s a winner and it works amazingly, they will say “well maybe these guys know something.” And so we kind of won his trust over in like the second week, I think it was. Before that, it’s not that he wasn’t liking it, but I think he didn’t really realize how it was going to work. He had written in his book [Chronicles], which I didn’t know about, that taking the motorcycle rides made him realize, “oh, I understand where these guys are going, it’s kind of cool.” I think that helps, you know, just having a motorcycle ride to clear your mind. When you’re stuck in the studio all day, sometimes it’s like having blinders on, you can’t see. So I think that opened up his thoughts on how it was being made.


DR: Is Dylan interested in the technical aspects of engineering? Does he care what microphone you’re using? Is he involved in the mix? Or does he just care about the feel?

MH: No… well, in a way.

When we started Time Out of Mind, I was mixing some live shows for him and one of the shows had him playing harmonica on it. He said, “can you make the harmonica sound electric?” I said “yeah” So, I took the harmonica and ran it through a distortion pedal into a little amp and re-miced it, so it had this grit on it. But right after the harmonica part finished his voice was coming out of there. He goes “wow, that’s amazing! It sounds great!” He loved these old blues records, like little Walter and all these amazing blues records that came out in the fifties and stuff, and he goes, “why can’t my records sound like that?” I said it can, we’ve just got to use old microphones and old techniques. I think that’s why Time Out of Mind has that kind of sound – a big open kind of concept – In a way.

So he loved this vocal amp and we used it all over Time Out of Mind. There would be two faders on the console. One would be this natural voice and the other one would be what I call the amp vocal. And he’d always sit beside me and say “where are we at with the ratio for the vocals?” and I’d say “we’re like sixty-forty; sixty clean and forty dirt.” He goes “make ‘em fifty-fifty!”, so I’d make it fifty-fifty. His voice had this special kind of sound on it, right? A you-don’t-get-this-every-day kind of thing. He loved it.


DR: The influences Dylan cites for Time Out of Mind are old blues records, but Daniel Lanois is, to me, a modern producer. Was it hard balancing those two things, making it sound like an old record but also making it sound like a modern rock album?

MH: I was just trying to make it sound as unique as possible. I wasn’t following any real forms other than using, like I said, older instruments and old mics and stuff like that. But I think it definitely did shape the sound of the records for sure, just having that in mind. But once you get in there certain tracks take over and become something else. Once you’re there with everybody in the room, it might take a left turn because it sounds completely different.

And with Dylan, we had like fourteen people in the room playing the same thing. And Dylan changes the key in every song just to see where his voice lands, if it just sounds better in a certain key. For a musician to change the key on the spur of the moment, it’s like learning a whole new song. So the band would come in to listen to the playback. People would be playing wrong notes and Dan just said “look, if you’re not gonna play the right note, don’t play at all.” He was very insistent with that! So it was kind of a difficult situation. It sounded pretty scary sometimes, but then other songs like “Love Sick”, this was in Miami, they were tracking and I put this cool little flange thing on his voice and a couple of other effects on guitars. So when the band came in I had this sound going on. So I printed that mix for “Love Sick” right out of Miami and I never bettered it, that’s the playback mix from that song. I got a certain sound that I tried to recreate and I couldn’t recreate it, so we ended up using that mix.


DR: When did you get the phone call to work on Time Out of Mind How did you end up recording in Miami?

MH: We got a call from his manager about mixing [a live recording from] this House of Blues place he played during the Olympics, I guess in ‘96 when the Olympics was in Atlanta. So we came out of mixing that into the making of Time Out of Mind at a studio called the Teatro, which was a studio of mine. I had taken a 1940s Mexican porno cinema and turned it into a studio. I had taken all the seats out and put a big deck in the middle and used the rest of the seats at the back for guitar stands. So we had quite a scene going in the Teatro and that’s where I mixed those shows from Atlanta.

When we started Time Out of Mind, Dylan was infatuated with this kid called Beck and he wanted the record to be like a Beck record. And so that’s where the loops and all that stuff started to come in. We started off just kind of like raw, with Dylan playing piano, and then we brought in this drummer from New York called Tony Mangurian, and he produced a lot of New York bands. One of them was this band called Luscious Jackson, they’re like this hip-hop girl group. So he’s a hip-hop drummer and was playing these hip-hop grooves against what Bob Dylan was playing on the piano. A more gospel thing. It was like the hair on my arms went up like, “wow this is special.” So it started that way and then Dylan says, “look I can’t work here, it’s just too close to home, let’s go to Miami to make a record there.” That’s how we ended up going to Miami.


DR: Do you think recording in Miami changed the way that record was made? Or how it sounded? I’ve heard it speculated that Dylan moved the session to Florida to take Daniel Lanois out of his comfort zone.

MH: Yeah, I really hated that studio. The room was really big and spitty and was like plaster. It was for making videos, really. It had a video wall in there. We had an awesome sound at the Teatro and I brought the same Neve consoles, the same microphones, all the same gear – and some motorcycles – and it just didn’t sound as good. I was embarrassed, really, about the sound of the record because of that. But after we left Miami, we ended up regrouping back at the Teatro and re-recording a bunch of stuff and so I think the Teatro may have helped it in the end, you know.


DR: There’s a lot of Nashville session musicians on that record – Jim Dickinson, Brian Blade, Bob Britt, Augie Meyers. Dylan isn’t a session guy. As you mentioned earlier, he often changes the key or the lyrics at will. Do you think that dynamic contributed to the record?

MH: Yes. The key changes are pretty vital, you know, especially if your voice sounds better in a certain key. But like I said earlier, with what we call the ‘Nashville people’, they weren’t used to that kind of thing. They were top session players. We had Brian Blade, who played on that record along with Jim Keltner, side by side, which was a cool sound. If you listen to it closely with headphones, one drum set is on one side and the other drum set is on the other side, which makes for a cool rhythmic quality.


DR: How much of Time Out of Mind was recorded live in the room Was there much overdubbing?

MH: Well, there wasn’t that much overdubbing, really. He changed a couple of lines here and there. But I think a lot of the sound of the room was going into the vocal mic, so that’s kind of why it sounds like that. You wouldn’t get that in the normal studio because you would have been in an isolation booth and dead, but playing with the band you perform better. I always base everything on performances. I’ll work the sound thing out later, but let’s get the performance down perfectly first. So always as you’re recording, you’re changing the arrangement and all at the same time. You’ll do a take then, in between verses, if there’s just too much filler we can cut that back. It’s always an ongoing kind of change.


DR: Did you know Time Out of Mind was going to be a classic when you were making it?

MH: Not at all. No, no. I don’t think that about any records. Because I’m the engineer but, you know, I’m also on the mixer too. So I’m always thinking about what I need in the mix or what we need here, a melody or something. So I never think about whether it’s gonna be hit or not. But a song like “Not Dark Yet,” just lyrically you listen to it. You think “wow, this is something special here.” When you have a song that’s lyrically amazing, you know you can do something.


DR: Do the lyrics affect the way you mix a song?

MH: Yeah. I always tried to mix vocals to be really present and then surround around them. So it’s more depth of field. I could reach into the mix and the hi-hat could be in the very back and some guitars would be very upfront and the voice is commanding, you know. These days I think everything is mixed, compressed, and pushed all in your face and it’s not very dynamic. So I try to keep it as a landscape, in a way.


DR: Dylan produced his own records after Time Out of Mind. Do you think you taught him anything?

MH: We just made it look so easy that he could do it! That’s what I figure.


Recording Icons / Creative Spaces: The Creative World of Mark Howard is published by ECW Press. It is available now.





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),, 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,, 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,, 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),, 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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Vlasov, Eduard. “The World According to Bakhtin: On the Description of Space and Spatial

Forms in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Works.” Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol. 37, no. 1/2, 1995, pp.


Walter, J. H. “Further Notes on the Alterations to the Faerie Queene.” Modern Language Review,

vol. 38, no. 1, 1943, pp. 1-10.

Waters, D. Douglas. “Spenser and the “Mas” at the Temple of Isis.” Studies in English Literature,

1500-1900, vol. 19, no. 1, 1979, pp. 43-53.

Weiss, Katherine. “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and the Question of

American Identity.” Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, edited by Nduka

Otiono and Josh Toth, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 101 120.





Strutting and Fretting
BY Thomas Palaima, University of Texas

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi


You were seventeen
when the explosion went off
when a plane went down
when you were transported
through “Cottonfields”
into a world you’d never known
walking in darkness
and then there was light.


Then you were nineteen
winter of 1960
the cruel rain and the wind
blowing in early.


Lyn Castner gave the okay.
Flo’s brother, you recall.
You used his turntable,
played one by one
his eighteen
Woody Guthrie


Each time
the needle dropped
your head spun
the land parted
some heavy anchor plunged
into the waters of the harbor.
You felt more like yourself
than ever before.


Now you’re eighty-one.
You’ve songed and danced
masked and anonymous.
You’ve slept down in the parlor
as Alias and Jack Frost.


How does it feel?


How does it feel?


You’ve been to the bottom
and followed the river,
saddled a big white goose,
imagined life as
one big prison yard,
stood over a grave,
and hurled seven
incinerating curses.


You’ve left your heart
in the Highlands
while drowning in the poison.


You nearly drowned
in Delacroix.


You’ve been hunted
like a crocodile.


You’ve taken in,
peeked on your knees at
and looked right through
lies, dreams,
forgetful hearts
and some kind of pain.


Over by the cypress tree
enroute to Parkland hospital
between the windows of the sea
you’ve heard sirens and mermaids
and hoot owls singing
above and near
revival tents, slave markets
and medical butcher’s shops.


Their song has been
a fitting soundtrack
for Zapruder’s film
for sixty long years,
years that someone called,
you remember,
the age of the anti-Christ.


Sir Christopher asked you,
“Read any good books lately?”
You were re-reading
Richard the Third.


Do you ever wonder
whether your pasts
have ever been?


And if they were,
what scenes you were truly
featured in?


Is life a walking shadow?
If we’ve been poor players,
where was our director
and who wrote our lines?


Who staged our scenes?


And who kept hidden
all that went unseen?


Did the needle just skip?


And where must you and I have been?


My deep thanks to my many UGS 302 students over the years and to Tony Attwood for their many questions and their thoughts towards answers, darkness to pre-dawn light.

Some Other Kind of Place
(Birmingham, Alabama, June 1991)

BY David Bond



Once, in late August, I was in the mountains,
almost six thousand feet. It hailed golf balls
of hard, pure ice. I knew nature included
the mind. On that day I believed it.



Today, I watched a movie in technicolor,
ate chocolate milk duds and saw the true
incongruity of past and present. I saw
Thurgood Marshall leave his post: the only
one able to understand his loss. I saw a Black
father gently monitor the wandering of his five-year
old son in the pre-film darkness of a movie theater.



I have talked about Jesus. I have talked about the rain.
I have stolen words. Elvis. Memphis. Sophistry.
All of them ripped off from the ancient Greeks.



It is easy to use we, or they, or you, almost anyone
else. It is horrible to use I: almost as bad as trying
to finish the latest self-help book, or finding myself
so close to it, I can’t even remember when I last
put it down.


Back in the hard old days, when ambition was in the air on MacDougal Street, a song began “Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less.” Nothing prepared us for that opening line, the deeply ironic claim to anonymity by a voice instantly recognizable—a voice unmasking the singer and contradicting his words. Nor were we prepared for the searing skepticism of the song, the lyrics weighted with ironies to match the irony of anonymity. Of the nine verses, seven offered cherrypicked examples from unspeakable predations, ruinous wars, and the most grotesque horrors of the 20th century. The singer might be young, or he might be ageless, and his posture might be callow, but there was no resisting the gradual crescendo leading toward the inevitable challenge: “The words fill my head / And fall to the floor / If God’s on our side / He’ll stop the next war.”


But that was then and this is now. We beat on, yes, with rumors of wars and wars that have been. But when it comes to the erstwhile singer from MacDougal Street, does his name still mean nothing and his age even less? An interesting question comes to mind, now, long after the celebrated MacDougal Street dénouements: Is it true that his name is nothing and his age means less? Is Dylan still the erstwhile Outis of MacDougal Street?


In a word: No. Name and age mean increasingly more when we listen to—or read Dylan. But that is not only because he’s become part of our cultural repertoire, because his life has been uncrumpled in multiple biographies, to the extent that we know where he was on what day in a given year twenty or more years before. My contention is that Dylan himself has gradually let his personal identity seep into his songs, that, like the “Frog” in Dickinson’s poem (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”), he has increasingly found pleasure in “telling [his] name” to “an admiring Bog.” His new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, released in October 2022, which has already received plenty of reviews online and in newspapers, is a case in point. Too many of the reviewers, unfortunately, have used their reviews as a platform to take potshots at Dylan rather than trying to understand the text. One critic, who shall remain nameless, complained that the book was “saturated with misogyny,” as if misogyny were a noxious fluvial excretion. A weird metaphor, and too close to ad hominem critique. But we can dismiss that sort of review. More interesting by far are the serious reviewers who read the book, as Dylan seems to encourage with the songs he analyzes, as a portrait of the artist in statu nascendi. The sense of identity informs and suffuses the book, providing a stepping-stone for readers intent on following the yellow brick road to Dylan’s musical, or magical, origins or, to follow, in Warren Zevon’s phrase, what “the mystics and statistics say.” The new book turns out to be a kind of prismatic version of Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2004), intertwining the young Zimmerman’s playlist with a series of later songs peppered with epigrammatic reflections from a marvelously informed and cryptically associative cicerone. In The Philosophy of Modern Song at least, Dylan’s name it is something and his age it means more.


This semi-autobiographical voice, however much it impinges, doesn’t seem out of place in the book, even if it undermines the intellectual disinterest flaunted by the book’s title. But the infusion of identity into Dylan’s “philosophy” should come as no surprise. It’s my impression that, for better or worse, about twenty-five years ago the songs too began to change in this direction. This change—again, to my mind—manifests itself most clearly in Time Out of Mind. The anonymity of the singer/speaker gives way to less blurred identification of the author as the singer: to wit, “Not Dark Yet” and especially “Highlands.” After decades of rejecting personal identification with the speakers in his songs, Dylan seems deliberately to experiment with a new form of expression—identity-driven, intimate, a new Whitmanian “I.” This break with the anonymous past, if I can call it that, has made little impression on us as critics, or even as listeners, except, predictably, in interpretations of “I Contain Multitudes” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.


On one hand, Dylan’s lyrical experimentation as “Bob Dylan” might not seem new, given the array of early songs with “Bob Dylan” in their titles—not to mention the continuing fascination with Dylan’s “mercurial” identity, starting with his own Carnegie Hall Halloween concert joke “I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask” in the 60s through Renaldo and Clara, which features Dylan as Renaldo watching a Bob Dylan show, and finally such identity-bending escapades as “Masked and Anonymous” and “I’m Not There.”


On the other hand, the identity that begins to emerge on Time Out of Mind is a far cry from the wacky, unreal “Bob Dylan,” of “Bob Dylan’s 116 th Dream” or of spoofs like “Motorpsycho Nightmare.” Not even the eponymous westward-bound hero of “Bob Dylan’s Dream” provides a believable identity. Still, most listeners probably can name a song in which they hear Bob Dylan identify himself and speak without anonymity—“Ballad in Plain D,” for example, or “Sara,” a song whose historical reality confutes its status as one of Dylan’s most nostalgic lyrics. But the voice of that song, despite the title’s naming of a real-life wife, repels intimacy and instinctively guards its lyrical anonymity. It’s almost as if Dylan were taking a page from the Ars amatoria where Ovid advises:

Si latet, ars prodest: adfert deprensa pudorem,
Atque adimit merito tempus in omne fidem.

[Art, if hidden, avails: if detected, it brings shame, and deservedly discredits you forever.] [1]

In “Sara” the impression of hidden art “availing” or, less archaically, being useful (“prodest” is most commonly translated as “is useful”) pervades the song’s intimate memories, as if the mask of poetic manipulation will spare the artist shame—not only as an artist, but precisely because as an artist he has revealed his identity as the divorced husband of Sara. In fact, thanks to his hidden art, Bob Dylan’s name it means nothin’, and his age it means less even when the singer discloses an irrefutable identity-marker:

I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through
Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you

The unexpectedly revealing mention of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” leads to a quandary. As intimate as “Sara” purports to be, and as perfect an I.D. as “Sad-Eyed Lady” offers, the lyric slightly distorts historical reality, or hides it in images like “I can hear the sounds of those Methodist bells.” The Methodist bells could have been real, ringing out from the United Methodist Church on West 13 th Street. But the material reality of the bells, if it existed at all, merges with all those other highly significant bells in Dylan’s songs, from “Chimes of Freedom” to “Farewell Angelina / The bells of the crown” to, unforgettably, from the same album as “Sad- Eyed Lady,” “Shakespeare, he’s in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells.” The “Methodist bells” straddle a threshold between reality and abstraction, between Bob Dylan in a room at the Chelsea Hotel and an array of images associated with bells. This array of possible references, like slight abstractions from “the facts,” relieves the pressure on the singer to identify fully with the speaker.


The same cannot be said for “Highlands,” Dylan’s most ambitious narrative lyric after “Tangled Up in Blue.” The “I” in that song, carved out of the verses with such photographic clarity, merges into the singer’s “off-album” identity. This comes as quite a surprise. But part of the song’s power, its unparalleled sustaining voice including the subtle vocal, which is sometimes querulous, sometimes decisive depend on undoing anonymity in what seems an offhand, observational poetics. In American poetry, there is Whitman wandering through Manhattan and, almost a century later, Frank O’Hara. Dylan would probably have known Whitman, who, in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856)

Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,

Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,

The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,

The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine

The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses.

Dylan claims to have known O’Hara’s work. [2] And the tenor of O’Hara’s observational itinerant poetry, like Whitman’s, seems to anticipate Dylan’s experiments with the form.

The gulls wheeled
several miles away
and the bridge, which
stood on wet-barked
trees, was broad and
cold. Rio de Janeiro
is just another fishing
village, said George.
The sun boomed calmly
in the wind around
the monument. Texans
and Australians climbed
to the top to look
at Beacon Hill and
the Common. Later we
walked round the base
of the hill to the Navy
Yard, and the black
and white twigs stuck
in the sky above the old
hull. Outside the gate
some children jumped
higher and higher off
the highway embankment.
Cars honked. Leaves
On trees shook. And
above us the elevated
trolley trundled along.
The wind waved steadily
from the sea. Today we
have seen Bunker Hill
and the Constitution,
said George. Tomorrow,
probably, our country
will declare war.

“A Walk on a Sunday Afternoon”


O’Hara’s descriptive associations lull the reader like a pleasant itinerary, until he makes a lightning leap from the certainty of quotidian space (“Today we / have seen Bunker Hill”) to the quantum uncertainty of what’s to come (“Tomorrow, / probably, our country / will declare war”).


Compare O’Hara’s dictional maneuvers to Dylan’s in “Highlands”:

Every day is the same thing out the door
Feel further away than ever before
Some things in life, it gets too late to learn
Well, I’m lost somewhere
I must have made a few bad turns

I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright-colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I’d trade places with any of them
In a minute, if I could

I’m crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talking to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat
Somebody just asked me
If I registered to vote

“Highlands,” Time Out of Mind


In one light, “Highlands” can be seen as Dylan’s attempt to establish himself as a poet of the quotidian itinerary, a Whitmanian persona inserting himself between the trapper and his squaw (“I trade places with any of them / In a minute if I could”). This posture is a benchmark departure. Dylan long ago confirmed his credentials as a Whitmanian vatic poet, and his embrace of what might be called the “other Whitman” deserves attention. In contrast, O’Hara felt he lacked the vatic talent, and he accepted his inability to write with that kind of authority. In “For Bob Rauschenberg” he asks,

what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coined?

O’Hara might have added Dylan’s name after Ginsberg’s. But “Highlands” seems to herald a new Dylan—not the anonymous prophetic voice of the anthems, nor the cunningly slippery persona of such songs as “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Jokerman.” Instead, “Highlands” introduces listeners to a voice whose name and age matter, both inside the song’s narrative, and outside, in the interpretation of that narrative. When faced with the universal, suddenly the “I” seems to have a real-world presence in “Highlands,” framed by a new quotidian diction and a very tricky narrative frankness, reminiscent, perhaps, of Whitman’s “of Manhattan the son.”


This narrative frankness often compels us now to listen to Dylan’s songs without critical detachment, identifying the speaker of the lyrics as a celebrated 80-year old Nobel laureate named Bob Dylan whose life history we know well. The meaning of the newer songs sometimes relies on this identification in a way that “Hard Rain,” “Baby Blue,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Highway 61,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and so on, did not. “Tangled Up in Blue,” of course, received the full biographical treatment from critics, but ultimately the sheer brilliance of the lyrics superseded reductive interpretations.


To my ear, however, many songs since “Highlands” have shed the chrysalis of anonymity and agelessness. Take “Murder Most Foul,” a song from the latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, in which the identity of the singer seems to me to be crucial. It’s as if Dylan’s signature inhabits certain verses, as if he were mounting an exhibition of his own art—not visual art this time, but aural and oral. The song exudes an 80-year-old’s pained memories and a laureate’s dab hand with metrical and allusive pyrotechnics. At first, the speaker is nameless, an embodiment of an epoch (or the Voice of a Generation):

Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage

Dylan—famously, and despite a tsunami of rumors—did not perform at Woodstock (although he lived there and, in Big Pink, produced the colossally influential Basement Tapes). The nameless speaker charts a familiar cultural journey through the 60s, lacing the lines with quotations and suggestive rhymes like “rags/flags” and “Aquarian Age/stage” (the latter a reference to the song “The Age of Aquarius” performed in the Broadway play Hair). The verse tumbles from the innocence of “lil’ children” who are led by the Pied-Piper Mop Tops out of Liverpool to an uglier, menacing place where “three bums [are] comin’ all dressed in rags.” The “three bums” probably refers to the infamous “three tramps” associated with the Kennedy assassination because they were caught in newspaper photographs while being escorted by a Dallas policeman on November 22, 1963. [3] The quick transition in the verse to the promise of peace and love and Aquarius at Woodstock followed by the horrible murder “near the stage” at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont closes the circle, blasting the innocence of the first lines with a mirror of JFK’s assassination in the final line.


This is Dylan, if not precisely as the Voice of His Generation, then as the generation’s telegraphic chronicler. His identity is missing, except in the movement of the verse, which contains a subtle identifying marker: the narrative travels from the River Mersey to Woodstock and finally to Altamont, California. The narrator is bringing it all back home.


Later in the song, though, the first person speaker seems to reveal, and even underscore, his identity:

Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before
Seen it thirty three times, maybe more
It’s vile and deceitful—it’s cruel and it’s mean
Ugliest thing that you ever have seen
They killed him once, they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son, The age of the anti-Christ
has just only begun.”
Air Force One coming in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at two thirty-eight
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is and it’s murder most foul

The number thirty-three has mystical Christological overtones, in this instance linking Jesus’s age when he was crucified to “human sacrifice” and “the age of the anti-Christ,” which is presumably a reversal of the Age of Aquarius. But to complement (and complicate) the magical, numerological thinking, the speaker quickly brings the song down to earth: he recalls watching the Zapruder film “maybe more” than thirty-three times, as if forced like Alex in A Clockwork Orange to sit through the “Ugliest thing that you ever have seen.” This detail provides a moment of recognition, another identity-marker, because watching the Zapruder film irresistibly calls to mind a particular moment in America and captures a long forgotten Zeitgeist. As a result, the “I’ve seen” of the verse’s opening line seems to embody both the song’s speaker and the singer/songwriter himself, who, like the film, is a relic of the early 60s and a witness to murder most foul.


At times “Murder Most Foul” can sound like a carefully packed portmanteau, while at other times it’s more of a potpourri. It seems fair to ask whether Dylan is vamping erudition in his array of allusions, or whether he genuinely wants the Kennedy assassination to symbolize the whole of American cultural experience as a series of post hoc ergo propter hoc portents by the Weird (or Wired) Sisters of Macbeth. It’s probably impossible to answer that question. But maybe Dylan anticipated just such an impossibility. Maybe the song’s achievement lies in its highlighting of a particularly American indeterminacy, a liminal space where coherence and symbolic aporia meet.


In terms of my original conjecture—that is, how far Dylan has come from “Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less”—both “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” are the most obvious recent examples of his anonymity shedding. These songs seem, at this stage, to bookend “Highlands” and “Not Dark Yet.” But I don’t want to overdetermine my readings or lose all claim to critical tact. Let me conclude instead with a tempting, but hardly definitive, suggestion of an identity-marker from “Crossing the Rubicon.” In the first verse Dylan sings, “I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn.” In the Greek pantheon, the Goddess of Dawn was Eos (Aurora in the Roman pantheon). Her lover was Tithonus. The legend goes that Eos pleaded with Zeus to give Tithonus eternal life, which he granted. But Zeus did not give him eternal youth. So, while Eos was born anew every morning with the dawn, Tithonus grew older and older for all eternity. Tennyson voices this excruciating paradox perfectly:

Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East.



Does “Crossing the Rubicon” purposely begin with an image suggestive enough to make us think of the 80-year-old Dylan in the arms of an eternally young goddess? The paradox might amuse a singer/songwriter on a never-ending tour, aging from year to year as the performances are newly born at every gig from east to west. So what then are we to conclude from that? That Dylan’s career went from withdrawal to transparency, from hidden identity to a form of confessionalism, from Keats to the New York School? Or maybe something subtly different—that even the most self-revelatory Dylan lyrics keep a layer of obfuscation between the singer and his audience, that self-disclosure and self-mythologizing go hand in hand, to the extent that even the 80-year-old singer-poet views himself through the lens of Greek myth. As Whitman says, also in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,”

What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with
         voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest
         name as I approach?


What is Dylan’s “nighest name” today. He might have transitioned from nothing to something or multiple somethings—but that something still isn’t Dylan up close (and not, may the gods preserve us, Bobby Zimmerman).


[1] Ovid, Ars amatoria, Book II, lines 313-14, in Ovid in Six Volumes, vol. 2, The Art of Love and Other Poems, translated by J.H. Mozley, revised by G.P. Goold (Loeb Classical Library; Harvard UP, 1929; 2nd ed., 1979), pages 86-87.


[3] I am grateful to Cliff Radar for this reference. See Wikipedia:

“Dylan and the Beats,” June 3-5, 2022, Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education, Tulsa

REVIEW BY Robert Reginio, Alfred University


The Zarrow Center for Art and Education is a small space located in the same building as the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Zarrow Center was the intimate location of this year’s conference “Dylan and the Beats,” planned to coincide with the centennial of Jack Kerouac’s birth. It was the perfect space as this conference, unlike the expansive “World of Bob Dylan” conferences, focused specifically on its titular theme. Rarely have I experienced such a warm and convivial coming together of minds and energies as at this conference. It is to the credit of the organizers from the University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies that the excellent range of speakers and panelists were, by and large, experts in Beat literature and not solely dedicated Dylan scholars. Thus, the activity of tracing routes between the literary legacy of the Beats and Dylan’s work energized question-and-answer sessions, and conversations among the scholars and the conference attendees. This meeting should serve as a model for the kind of focused deep-dives of public intellectual inquiry that the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies can facilitate. Ultimately focused on Dylan, such kinds of conferences can draw lines from the affiliated Bob Dylan Center to the multiple histories and cultures the work comments on and is shaped by. Whether the number of participants can be kept to this ideal minimum for intense and unified cross-disciplinary conversations (which was due, in part, to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions) has yet to be seen.


The keynote addresses, spread across the three days, encompassed wide-scale surveys informed by rich historical research (Douglas Brinkley on Dylan, Guthrie, and Kerouac), presentations offering specific analytical modes to evaluate Dylan’s literary debts to the Beat writers (Rona Cran on Dylan and verbal collage and Timothy Hampton on Beat poetics and its modernist predecessors), and unique reinterpretations of Dylan’s poetics of the road (a blistering poetry reading by Anne Waldman and a revelatory return to Dylan’s 1964 “Kerouacian” road trip by David Hajdu).


Douglas Brinkley’s opening keynote address stressed the inescapable influence of Guthrie, Kerouac, and especially Allen Ginsberg on Dylan’s development as a songwriter-poet. Brinkley peppered his talk with evocative quotes from his own interviews with Dylan – “Woody never let me down,” was Dylan’s assessment of his debt to this road-traveler. Dylan’s response to Brinkley that “Allen’s poetry felt like a big city even as he writes about Wichita […] sharp words that seem to sweat when you read them” teased out the differences between Ginsberg’s major vatic style and Dylan’s ever-shifting poetics. As other presenters during the panel sessions would mention, Gregory Corso’s work – especially Bomb – was pointed to as an under-referenced work of Beat writing integral to compositions such as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Brinkley offered a portrait of Dylan as a thinker and composer who has these predecessors ever in mind, his legendary gift of recall keeping the past of this strand of American literature alive at his fingertips.


Regina Weinreich presented a wide-ranging assessment of Kerouac’s immigrant roots, his subsequent outsider status in American letters and culture more broadly, and the place of sexuality in Beat culture in her keynote “Orgasms Against Empire: Thoughts on Outlaw Culture.” The images in Kerouac’s prose, Weinreich argued, are like “neon light against the solidity of red brick,” complicated literary gestures that in Weinreich’s reckoning meant that, to live in America, Kerouac hid his immigrant otherness and, yet, proceeded to live – and write – honestly. Crucially, the confessions of the Beats were means for redemption both on a personal and a national level. In the light of this Beat genealogy, the putatively staid “Confessional poets,” such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, narrowed the scope of poetry’s cultural work. Redemption of the Beats’ complicated and, admittedly, ambitious sort was not a driving force behind the literary confessions of Lowell and Bishop, which the Beats assumed remained focused on personal epiphanies.


Driven by the recent death of Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman paid tribute to this Beat poet by reflecting on the importance of archives. Aptly, in close proximity to Dylan’s sturdy archival edifice, Waldman mused on the precarity of the archives of the Naropa Institute, intoning “What is your one hundred year project to protect sentience?” as if the tangled bits of memory and desire that make up our sentient minds can settle into legible patterns in an archive. Facing death, though, Waldman insists that we must archive nevertheless. Her poem “Archive Litany” was read with feral Beat force. Lines like “An archive is a strange cosmology,” “Archive listens to the marginal,” and “Archive is nest is house is reverie,” revived the anaphoric poetics of Ginsberg and the political valence of such litanies. Of the past Beats who have died, “solid irreversible entities” they are not. They remain for Waldman the “muscle genius” of their texts, as she proclaimed empathy was the way to avoid “the robots from taking over the archive.” It was bracing to hear a Beat poet incanting invectives against the levelling forces of accumulation that made the evening possible.


A dominant mode of Dylan’s late style – textual and lyrical collage – was seen as operative throughout Dylan’s corpus by Rona Cran in her keynote address on Dylan and the art of collage. Arguing that collage begins with a cut – a violence, even – Cran explained how the new context into which cultural detritus or literary allusions are placed allows these bits of culture to retain an aura of strangeness. In a song like “Desolation Row,” the impending dissolution of American culture that shades the song exists alongside a constellation of juxtaposed characters who are stripped of our tendency to read these icons and historical figures in hierarchical terms. Thus the work of Pound and Eliot, but also Burroughs, intersects with folk and blues traditions in Dylan’s work. Cran sees The Basement Tapes as an experiment in collage and archiving, noting that Beat writers and French symbolists shaped Dylan’s collage practice in the songs leading up to those experiments. In those songs (in the great trilogy of 1960s albums) we find “aphoristic non-sequiturs” (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) and “psychedelic composite narratives” (think “Visions of Johanna”). Collage is central for an artist who abounds in influences, but who never seems purely derivative.


In his own keynote address, David Hajdu returned us to Dylan’s 1964 “Kerouacian” cross-country trip, famous for producing songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom.” The goals of this trip were to see America, to break from the Greenwich Village folk scene and its insular music, to promote his latest album, and to gather stories for more writing. Hajdu quoted Victor Maymudes: “Dylan was just happy to be in the car, to write, to listen to the radio, and to get high.” Hajdu explored the pivotal music Dylan would have heard over and over again on AM radio: this was Dylan’s first deep immersion into The Beatles’ music. Hajdu offered up the wonderfully provocative results of a particular musical experiment: listening to the songs that dominated the charts during Dylan’s trip, Hajdu discovered that Dylan took the pop aesthetic of the day and brought it to the compositions for and recording of Another Side of Bob Dylan. “These songs sound like demos for a band record,” Hajdu asserted. While the lyrics echo with the influence of Beat poetry, the music was influenced by the popular music of the day. Dylan used harmonic structures of this music to integrate this new pop music with the rhythm and imagery of Beat and Symbolist poetry.


Timothy Hampton’s keynote focused on the ways in which Beat poetics intersected with Dylan’s development as a writer at key points. The tools of his poetics, identified by Hampton as “voice,” “vision,” and “rhythm,” supplied Dylan with a new way of crafting songs. Ginsberg links “voice” (as “Howl” has it, “confessing out the soul”) to “rhythm” (“the rhythm of thought”). This kind of poetry breaks away from traditional meters and bases new poetry on the rhythmic patterns of American speech. Hampton argues that it is only in popular song that voice can become a rhythm instrument. The idea of “vision” for the Beats, or “images,” has nothing to do with metaphor – as in Imagism. Juxtaposition is key for Beat poetry and the movement from one image to the other inaugurates a kind of process rather than stabilizing the verse in a traditional way. Dylan adapted this idea of process to the modality of the popular song. Locating Rimbaud as a key figure in insurrectionary American writing, Hampton argues that, for Dylan, the visionary experience prominent in Rimbaud’s writing is the central focus of “My Back Pages,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” These songs offer up composite figurations, a piling up of rhymes, and a playing of vocal rhythm against the time of the music in order to amplify the juxtapositional poetics of Dylan’s Beat-inspired work in which causality and values are radically transformed.


For the panel on “Writing On the Road,” Jean-Christophe Cloutier outlined the crucial moment when Kerouac, after writing to Neal Cassidy about the key experiences of Quebecois youth, wrote his first novel in French. This dramatically shows us, Cloutier averred, that, as Kerouac himself put it, “I never had a language of my own.” Cloutier argued that Kerouac’s experiments on the famous scroll that became On the Road were deeply rooted in this duality between linguistic homelessness and a dedication to full expressive honesty in the American idiom. The quest for an American language produced the “revolutionary modern sound” of Kerouac’s writing. That the literal quests of On the Road were understood by Dylan as a quest he too would undertake – to find a new American language – was the main thrust of this intriguing survey of Kerouac’s experiments on and investigations in American English.


For a panel on Beat spirituality and the search for a “vision” or a “visionary poetics,” Nina Goss looked closely at the language of prophecy that permeates the work of the Beat writers. For Goss, that language was refashioned in Dylan’s songwriting. Identifying a tension in Dylan’s work between the singer-prophet and the obligations of the filial identity, Goss noted that the listener of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is put in the position of the questioning mother, listening to the unfolding visionary strophes while asking for filial piety in her own urgent demands for sights, sounds, and narratives. Thus the struggle is to compress his childlike yet visionary poetry to the language of the mother, a repository of communal demands for communicable visions. The result is the song’s expression of a drama of a split self, the singer torn between his devotion to his mother and his visionary calling. Looking at a song structured in a similar way (as an address to a mother/listener), Goss argued that, in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” various eclipses contend with the attempt to wrest meaning from vision. Although the prophet/singer insists to his mother he’s “alright,” the question of what it means to be true in language troubles the poet. Ultimately, the drama of these songs reflects the insistence in Beat literature on personal “vision” and its duty to contend with communal, even national, identifications.


In a panel on “The Black Beats,” William Harris spoke about the relationship between Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and the “New American Poetry,” as Donald Allen’s influential anthology, with Baraka as an advisor, termed it. Although Baraka was quoted as saying that “There’s only one person in New York City I trust: Allen Ginsberg,” he felt the term “Beat” was too limiting. He was shaped by Beat writing, but he also in turn shaped it. Gregory Corso told Baraka, “if you don’t represent the middle class ofay world…you are in trouble.” Yet, when the assumption was made by Beat writers that Baraka was trapped, as a Black writer, because he was called on always to write about “his people,” Baraka retorted, “who are Joyce’s Dubliners, then?” This retort signifies the turn towards cultural nationalism and Blackness that began in 1963. Thus, Harris framed Baraka’s 1964 collection, The Dead Lecturer, as a conflicted book, much like the contemporaneous Another Side of Bob Dylan, in that he questions his relation to the Beat generation. Both the poetry collection and Dylan’s album explore dissolving and emerging affiliations for the writers – a renewed emergent sense of community for Baraka and a deferral of such communal ties for Dylan. Harris insisted that Baraka, even when moving from an avant-garde view to a cultural-national one, always, in his poetry, is talking to his friends, a coterie-poetics found in early Beat writing, which Baraka expanded to include a cultural nationalist perspective.


Maria Damon drew into the ambit of Dylan Studies another African American Beat writer. On a panel titled “Hard Travelin’,” Damon made the convincing case that Bob Kaufman’s “The Ancient Rain” is an American jeremiad in the vein of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Inspired by Lorca’s Poet in New York (coin of the realm in underground, Beat circles) and the folk scene (Kaufman taught “Rocky Road” to Len Chandler and Dave Von Ronk), Kaufman’s poem evokes the “crackling blueness” of the enforced Electroconvulsive therapy Kaufman underwent and the line “into the crackling blueness they go” from a Lorca poem about Harlem. These contextual and intertextual elements brought Damon to the point that historical work – such as reviving the work of Kaufman – is difficult because of the persecution of political radicals, queer people, and Black people. The “crackling blue” – evoking the blue tones of Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” itself a meditation on a radical time when “revolution was in the air” – indicates a liminal space where the persecuted live, the “blue zone of fact, memory, and history” as Damon put it. Dylan and Kaufman offer us a mode of “sampling” textual weaves that excavate these liminal zones without demanding clarity from them. In Damon’s reading, the ungovernable “contact zone between fact, memory, and history” is the focus of “Tangled up in Blue” and Kaufman’s “The Ancient Rain.”


In the estimation of Timothy Gray, Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (an admitted literary failure) and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks were artistic retrenchments from personal failures that shifted the writers’ modes from grand visionary literature to personal reflection. Gray’s panel presentation on the Rolling Thunder Revue noted that since Blood on the Tracks was, indeed, such a profound breakthrough in Dylan’s work, it encouraged Dylan’s traveling and performance in the Revue. Thus, for Gray, the tour sought to maintain a balance between the madcap energy of On the Road with a kind of nostalgia for early-1960s folk revivalism. This balance – more of an “oscillation” – sustained a kind of shape-shifting endemic to Dylan’s career and, most pertinently, the performances on this tour. Noting that the figures in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train were at the ends of their rides in 1975, Gray argued Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour was a self-conscious farewell to the 1960s, an era when rock and roll turned into “rock” (its “imperial phase” as Gray put it).


Since “The World of Bob Dylan” conferences, held in a capacious hotel and not the specific, intimate environs of the Zarrow Center, can at times overwhelm with overlapping panels on a myriad of subjects, it is shrewd for the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies to host, in the intervening years, conferences like this. Fans and scholars were able to partake in deep dives which a larger conference might not allow. In contrast, intensely focused conversations, as found in the excellent “Dylan and the Beats” conference, offer a complementary space to work, in a sustained way, on one of the contexts scholars can use to understand the work of Bob Dylan.