FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY John Hughes, University of Gloucestershire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Alessandro Carrera, University of Houston, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel

Thin man lookin’ at his last meal

Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield

For dignity.

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

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

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

If I don’t come back,

you should know that I’ve never


My travel

was all about staying

here, where I have never been.[2]

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


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

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

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Michael Gray, Independent Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence

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

And I’m just like that bird

Singin’ just for you.

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

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

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

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

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents

The stars above the barren trees

Was his only audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Timothy Hampton, University of California, Berkeley

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

Lights flicker from the opposite loft

In this room, the heat pipes just cough

The country music station plays soft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Anne-Marie Mai, University of Southern Denmark

Bob Dylan turns 80, still active and still the subject of controversy. The old songwriter, musician, and Nobel Prize winner is one of the world’s biggest celebrities; a riddle who prefers to surprise rather than to live up to the expectations of the audience or the media. His songs have long since become classics in the songbooks of the world. But have we grasped the challenges he has presented not only to his audience but also to the Humanities and to literary studies? Research in Bob Dylan’s oeuvre is a rapidly growing field, his archives are safe at Tulsa University in Oklahoma, and it is time to take a closer look at how Dylan’s work can renew the study of literature.

Bob Dylan does not seem happy when his songs are described as literature. He emphasized this when he received the Nobel Prize in 2016. In his “Nobel Banquet Speech,” he explained that he had never asked himself whether his songs are literature, and in his Nobel lecture, he ended up pointing out that songs are different from literature. They are meant to be sung, not read. Should literary scholars not simply keep their fingers off Dylan’s work and leave his songs to musicology? The question is, of course, rhetorical: the literary scholars and poets of the Swedish Academy should be proud to receive Bob Dylan’s thanks for answering a question he has never asked himself. After all, being able to ask a question that a genius of arts has not even thought of must be considered a sign of an intellectual capacity. 

In his Nobel lecture, Dylan tells the audience how, in addition to country and western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues, literature has been his spiritual baggage. He rounds up his lecture by a reading of three works that have been particularly important to him: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Eric Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer’s The Odyssey. Dylan’s reading focuses on the voices of the texts, their many sources of inspiration, their plots, themes, and symbols. But it is also characteristic that he shifts his interest in what the texts mean to what they do. 

Literary studies have tended to treat Dylan’s lyrics as close-reading goodies. We have practiced interpretation and deconstruction on the lyrics, tracing their direct and indirect quotes and loans in long, learned lines, but perhaps we should learn from Dylan and look at what the songs do and what their creative potential for the audience may be. Perhaps we have overlooked that interpreting is fundamentally about creating a connection to the text, which is exactly what the audience has done for ages and what they still do when they review Dylan’s songs in social media and at digital bookstores, describing how they have been emotionally engaged in Dylan’s songs. One Amazon reviewer expresses how he has been moved by Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways: “Dylan erupts with words that evoke feelings of confusion, chaos, anxiety, and our/his never-ending desire for love and meaning and purpose.” Bob Dylan’s songs encourage literary scholars to not only study what a work of art means, but also, as Professor Rita Felski has put it, to study what it does, what feelings it awakes, what relations to other people and other artworks it creates, and how it changes the literary culture. We should not leave out the intertextual studies of the text, the close readings, and the literary critique, but we also need to study what the songs create and how they are used.

Dylan’s lyrics are often a network of modernist and romantic imagery, of everyday speech, ballads, folk songs, classical poetry, slogans, and commercial language, and as such, his lyrics have contributed to changing literary culture, making a rich and experimental poetry known to a wide audience. Modernist poetry is with Dylan no longer reserved for academia, and its medium is not only the book, but also the album, the rock concert, the festival, and the movie. The contrast between high and low culture, which characterized the first half of the twentieth century, has been weakened. Something has changed, and Dylan’s contribution to the changes of literary culture seems important and interesting to study. 

Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, can also be seen as a call for new literary studies. The memoir questions a traditional understanding of artists’ autobiographies as stories of the man or woman behind the artwork. Dylan’s book is something different. It is more about the man with the songs, and it represents a biographical turn to the musical and artistic environments and events that gave Dylan’s art its direction. The main character of the story is Dylan’s own artistic process more than it is a story of his life, and it opens up new ideas in contemporary biographical studies, paying special attention to relationships between people, things, and circumstances and how they hook up, as Dylan has put it. 

It seems that digitalization has made the audience more eager to get backstage and meet the artist. The audience is fascinated with the intersection of the performative personality, interpretations of the personal life in media documentations, and the living person, as we have seen with Whitney Houston. A kind of biographical public media mist settles, and the artist might end up as a virtual zombie, a living dead, whose hologram haunts the world.  

As for Bob Dylan, there has been no shortage of stories about his personal life. New details emerge, old friends, colleagues, and supporters report. Dylan himself is mostly silent. And he has said that people ask him, “Are you who I think you are? Are you really him? No, you are not him?”, and these questions go on and on (Bradley 2003). But in Scorsese’s movie Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), Dylan takes part in the creation of a funny autofiction, where fictional characters and episodes become part of the story of the show. In Chronicles, destiny is often pictured as a feeling and a personal understanding but also as an outer unknown power. Perhaps this is a contradiction — but as Dylan sings in 2020: “I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods.” Which can, of course, be considered as another invitation to further studies.