The Dylan Review spoke with poet and translator Alessandro Carrera in fall 2021.

DR: Do you translate the lyrics as poetry on the page or as songs to be performed? Do Italian performers cover Dylan songs in Italian?

AC: I’ll start from the second part of the question if you don’t mind. Yes, there are several Italian covers of Dylan songs. They start after Blonde on Blonde. The first covers appeared in 1967, when Dylan was not very well known. It was at a time when there was a rush of British and American covers in Italian pop music. Everybody was translating English and American songs. Also, there were very favorable laws at the time, that in a way, favored covers even better than national songs. It’s not the case anymore, but it was the case back then. So, if you could get into the “club of translators” of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, and others, you could make money. The first cover was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but it was not released until 1972, because the arrangement was not good. But the first cover that had a certain circulation was “I Want You.” Many people listened to those songs without knowing who the author was. It was only in the 1970s that there were covers addressed to people who could clearly compare to the original, and I would say that the best ones were “Desolation Row” and “Romance In Durango,” both written by Italian songwriters Francesco De Gregori and Fabrizio De André. I would say “Romance In Durango” was probably the most faithful rhythmic translation. It was very close to the original lyrics. And there were others. There were translators before me because the first collection of songs appeared before Writings and Drawings, and one of [the translators]—who translated Lyrics, 1962-1985—decided to do translation in rhyme. I was not satisfied with this. To me, many songs seem to be contrived just for the sake of putting in a rhyme. When I started working on it, I saw that it was absolutely impossible to translate all the songs in rhyme and metric. Also, because the previous translations were full of mistakes. And I wanted the readers to, for once, read exactly what Dylan meant, instead of reading my personal interpretation, my version, and that is the reason why I wanted to add a substantial corpus of endnotes for every song. So, my edition is not a critical edition, but it is the only annotated edition in the world, I think. The publisher let me do it. Then my notes were translated for the Spanish edition. So, in the Spanish edition, you’ll find up to 2012, my notes translated. However, the work on the notes to me was necessary because I noticed that Dylan uses several layers of meanings; it’s full of puns, which are almost untranslatable. Some lines are—this is something I noticed, I’m not sure that I’m right—I noticed as a translator that sometimes Dylan uses idioms in the literal meaning, not in the idiomatic meaning. That is, he picks up a sentence that is idiomatic in English, like “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,” from “Like A Rolling Stone,” and you don’t really know if he means the idiomatic meaning of “getting your kicks” or the literal meaning: getting your kicks in the rear. It’s very hard to decide, and that’s not the only case. So, when you translate, what do you do? You have to choose the idiomatic meaning or the literal meaning. You cannot choose both because there is no equivalent in Italian. So therefore, I said, I have to explain this in the notes. I give the idiomatic meaning in the translation, because I think it’s the first one that everybody understands, I mean English-speaking persons. Then I say, okay, you can also read it in another way. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have explanatory notes. And then the notes became philological, that is, these are the sources, poetic sources, musical sources, and whatever. Therefore, most of my translations are literal. No rhyme and no metrics, but there were some songs that couldn’t let me sleep. They were telling me, “No! You have to do it right! You have to make me with rhyme and metric.”

DR: Could you give an example or two?

AC: Yes, “My Back Pages,” for example. With my “My Back Pages,” it was possible to do that without changing much of the text. And then I did the same thing with some short songs where the rhythm is the most important thing, some of the blues songs for example. It was impossible with the narrative ones, like “Hurricane” or “Brownsville Girl,” you know, they have to be read like stories. And then there were two songs that told me “No! You have to make me right.” And I’m proud of those: “Early Roman Kings” and “Mother of Muses.” And then in other songs, I adopted a compromise.  For example, “Desolation Row,” because every stanza ends with the same sound—”Desolation Row”—I rhymed with row in every stanza. So, there’s only one rhyme in every stanza, but at least there’s some sort of recurring rhythmic lyric.

DR: Every translation is also a transformation and a new creation. How important is the structure of a line to you in transforming it into Italian verse, and do you feel that to accommodate the significant differences between the English and Italian word order, you must sacrifice something distinctly U.S. American?

AC: Well, sometimes the original is sacrificed—there’s no other way to put it—because the Italian syntax is different. It’s very fluid. In Italian you can use inversions, for example, if you want. So, it’s not that you have to respect the exact syntax of the other language, because you can play with the syntax. That’s something with other languages you cannot do. You cannot use inversions easily in English, or French, or German. What goes away is the sound. I mentioned “Early Roman Kings.” The reason why I wanted to do a rhythmic translation of that song is precisely because of its sound in English—not so much about the content, but because of the sound. I tried to read it out loud, and it has a phonetic density that is almost unmatched. You have to go back to songs like “Chimes of Freedom” to get the same amount of phonetics. It’s just full of sounds. You don’t even need the music for that song, in fact, it’s almost spoken. So, I wanted to re-create a sound but of course not the English sound. I wanted to have an Italian sound that was as strong and as uncompromising as the English song. As for the meaning, what makes the English  language what it is, sometimes you have to forget about it. My choice when it was possible was to think, how would an Italian poet say the same thing? So, I was racking my memory to think of lines, or poets from the past. Sometimes I thought of poets from the twentieth century, and sometimes I went back as far as Petrarca. What could Petrarca do with a line like this? And I can give you an example: “Standing in the Doorway.” It starts with the line, “I’m walking through the summer nights.” Now, walking is the thing that all Dylan characters do. They always walk. This is the archetype of the Dylan situation: a lonely man walking down a country road, or driving, but mostly it’s walking, or getting on a train. But never getting on an airplane. There are no airplanes in Dylan, except in “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

The problem is that the verbs that you use to describe movements in English, like walking for example, and the way the same movement is described in Italian, is so different. Because in Italian you don’t use the verb the equivalent of “to walk.” You say different things. Instead of saying “io cammino,” “I walk,” “I walk from here to there,” “cammino da qui a là”— no, people don’t say that. They just say, “I go,” or they say “vado a piedi,” “I walk by foot.”  So I had to find a different equivalent for all this walking. With that line, “I’m walking through the summer nights,” it was not easy to find any Italian line that had the same cadence, so to speak. Then I thought, I want Petrarca. There’s a famous poem by Petrarca that begins with two lines: “Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi / vo mesurando a passi tardi et lenti.” It’s a Dylan line: “Alone and pensive in the most deserted meadows, I am measuring my steps, taking a measure with my steps, slowly and with fatigue.” Now, this idea that “I am measuring my steps,” I thought, okay, this is what I have to do. So, my translation starts with “Misuro coi passi le serre estate”: “I am measuring the summer nights with my steps.” The sound is similar to the cadence in English. Of course it’s a different line, but if someone remembers Petrarca, they say, “Yes, I understand the equivalence of the two situations.” It may not seem so, but Dylan is closer to Petrarca than he is to Dante. There are several lines that could be translated with Petrarca in mind. In other instances, I thought of contemporary poets. For example, with “All Along the Watchtower,” I was trying to find a good equivalent of “watchtower.”  There were several, but I was also looking for the rhythm. And there is the idea of “all along,” which is not just on top of the watchtower, and which was almost impossible to translate. But then I remembered a poem by Mario Luzi that ends with this line translation: [di] “Tanto afferra l’occhio da questa torre di vedetta”: “this is what the eye can get from this watchtower.” The final stanza, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view,” I translated as “dalla torre di vedetta i principi scrutavano d’intorno.” But I couldn’t think of the perfect equivalent of “watchtower” until I remembered that poem by Luzi.

DR: That brings up the question of what Dylan was reading and when.

AC: That’s a good question. The Bible is always the main source. Not just the King James Bible, but there’s also the New International version. I think Dylan, as we all know, he reads to get something, to appropriate. He’s a magpie. I don’t think he reads systematically with the idea of getting into a contest with the original. He may quote or echo Walt Whitman sometimes, but I don’t think he consciously says, “I want my listener to understand that I’m referring to Walt Whitman in order to engage in a conversation on this issue.” No, I think he works in a more collageistic way, which makes sense in the end. That is the mystery. It’s not the amount of quotes that you can find. There are songs of Dylan that are just made of quotes. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” is entirely made of quotes. But it makes sense. The way he puts them together creates a different thing. Therefore, the accusation of plagiarism really does not stand up.

DR: Dylan is a master of the demotic and much of his immediacy depends on audience recognition of tropes of common speech. How do you mirror this effect in Italian?

AC: I noticed that even in the songs of the 1960s, he uses the demotic, but sometimes the demotic comes from areas of the English language that not everybody would recognize immediately. There are several expressions that belong to the language of the blues. And I don’t think everybody can get them, because you have to have a certain knowledge of the blues lyrics, of the blues poetry, to understand what they mean. Sometimes he uses references to the blues in a funny way that’s completely out of place. Even the song “Just Like a Woman” is a blues expression. The way he uses it cannot be picked up from the streets of New York. No, it comes from Alabama, Tennessee, or Mississippi, actually. It does not come from New York. Or the idea in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which sounds so 60s, so New York. But no, it’s based on very old blues, and you always have some clue that brings you out of the city and into the countryside. For example, in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” you have at the beginning, “Go away from my window.” “Go away from my window” comes from “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes,. It’s a song that Sleepy John Estes composed long before the 60s, but Dylan knew it. But there are two sources. “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes begins “Go away from my window, quit scratching on my screen,” but the expression comes from an English ballad that’s called “Go Away from My Window.” It’s a very old ballad, and Dylan knew it in the version of John Jacob Niles, who was a musicologist and balladeer with an uncanny voice. Dylan says about him in Chronicles [that] “Niles was incredible, he sang like a Shakespeare witch,” which is absolutely accurate. Listen to John Jacob Niles and you get the idea. This is the sound of the witches of Macbeth. So, you think the song is very city-like but it goes way, way back. And some of the expressions that we associate with the songs of the 60s are almost unknown today. They fell out of use. I remember this from when I was writing my book on Dylan, which appeared in 2001.  The third edition was published this year. I was translating for my book some lines from “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I was trying to figure out what “don’t let other people get their kicks for you” meant. I was teaching at NYU at the time and I didn’t want to ask a professor, but rather someone who was living in New York. So, I asked the secretary of the department without telling her that I was translating Dylan. And she said, “Whoever wrote this is certainly not a native speaker.” Dylan uses expressions that are apparently common, very sophisticated, and very strange. Even when he uses street language, it’s almost never literal street language. There’s always a twist.

DR: How does the music or the melody affect the meter of the translation?

AC: When you translate a song, you don’t just translate the lyrics, you also translate the rhythm and the voice. The voice sometimes gives an inflection to certain lines and gives them an interpretation. The voice interprets what it is singing. You have to think of how Dylan is singing certain lines to get them in translation. The rhythm is extremely important. Sometimes I had to readjust the Italian lines because they were too long. I had to avoid the service translation effect. There’s a huge literature on that. I read an attempt of an Italian writer to translate certain books of the Bible that way and unless you are a Bible scholar, you cannot go past page two. It’s just impossible. So, we have to accept the fact that we have to re-create things in a different way. And besides, Italian has its own rhythms. The most common Italian line is eleven syllables, which is close in a way to the iambic pentameter. If you think of the iambic pentameter in Italian, you think of it as a ten-syllable line. But Italian has abandoned Latin meter, which was quantitative. Italian uses just the number of syllables and the way the accents are placed, which is variable. You can have different patterns of accents. So, in a way you have a great variety of rhythms that you can use. For the short songs I wanted to write short lines. But for narrative songs like “Hurricane” and “Brownsville Girl,” or even “Idiot Wind,” I felt free to translate them almost in prose.

DR: What is the most difficult aspect of Dylan’s lyrics to translate?

AC: He never says exactly what it seems he is saying. There is always a backline behind the line. Sometimes you understand that, sometimes it’s hidden in the song. It’s hidden also—and this is something you discover thanks to the bootleg series—because what is on the official recording is sometimes not the final version of the song, or even the best version of the song. There are songs that have had a very complicated gestation. If you read only the final version of the official version, there are lines that are almost incomprehensible, and they become comprehensible if you look at the previous versions. There is sort of a mega text. For example, a song like “Foot of Pride.” Thanks to the latest installment in the bootleg series, we now have two previous versions under a different title—“Too Late”—and two versions of “Foot of Pride.”  If I were to go back to “Foot of Pride,” which is a very mysterious song, because it seems to be telling many different stories at the same time, I think I could do a better job by comparing the four versions and considering them as one. So that in the final version, what is mysterious can be explained by what was cut off in the previous versions. In Dylan, nothing is definitive. There are songs that he never changed. He never changed the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone.” He never changed the songs of John Wesley Harding or Oh Mercy. Those songs are very written. They are written in a tight scheme, a rhythmic scheme, so it’s not easy to change that. But for example, with Blood on the Tracks, we have several versions that are very different from one to another and you have to consider all of them. Even recently, Modern Times was a nightmare for me because that record was made in a haste. If you listen to it closely, there are some mistakes. There is a wrong note played by the guitar in the final song and they could have easily corrected it. But Dylan being Dylan, they didn’t. And then I found out that the lyrics of Modern Times are one thing and then there’s the same song in another bootleg series with a very different text. And then there’s the printed text in the American edition of Lyrics, which is often completely different from what he sings. Of course they illuminate each other if you compare them. As for my edition, I had to choose one. And I was thinking of someone who is listening to the record with the Lyrics book open. The reader wants to read the same lines that Dylan is singing. On the other hand, I had to stick to the text printed in the lyrics because that is what I’m supposed to translate. Therefore, I copied all the stanzas that Dylan is singing but are not printed, and I put them in the notes. So, if you go back and forth between what Dylan is singing and what is printed, and what I put in the notes, you can reconstruct the song. It’s a very long process. You have to be very in love with Dylan to do that. But this is how it works. The difficult thing is to understand that sometimes what he says is not really understandable, because it’s the revision of a revision of a revision. And that whole process of writing the song must be understood as one single work.

DR: And also an evolution, right? Because as a songwriter, he’s seeing different possibilities over time.

AC: Sure.

DR: Dylan is a performance artist and for most admirers and audiences, the songs are alive in his voice. Do you translate with the idea that your readers will compare the Italian version to the original recordings?

AC: Yes and no. Because to compare the translation with the original, it should follow the same rhythmic pattern. For myself, I translated sixteen songs that I can sing. Many years ago, I was a folk singer and a singer-songwriter, so I published an album and some scattered songs. Those sixteen Dylan songs, I did them for myself and for occasional performances. But I didn’t publish those translations, because they veer away from the original. In my written edition in the book, I wanted to have a literal translation. So I don’t think the reader necessarily wants to compare my translation with the original. The reader wants to understand what the song means.

DR: In the interview on 8thofmay.wordpress.com—“My Voyage in the Labyrinth”—you speak of Dylan’s use of anaphora. You quote your Italian version of “Where have you been my blue-eyed son?” from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and the repetition of “With your” in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Do you look for this kind of rhetorical device to frame your translations?

AC: I had to use that of course. It had to be respected. You will find the same in my translations. But I translated “blue-eyed boy” as “mio figlio diletto,” “my favorite son,” in a way. I rely on scholars of the English ballad. This seems to be the meaning. So, it’s not literal. It’s a typical way of referring to my favorite son. In Italian, I consciously used the most common translation from the Bible. When God says “This is my chosen son,” the exact expression is “Questo è il mio figlio diletto,” so I wanted to use the same when I could find a reference to a common Italian translation of the Bible.

DR: Do you think of yourself as a re-shaper of the literal lyrics?  Or, in contrast, do you think of your lyrics as reflecting the source semantics and, in translation-theory terms, “functioning as target-language literary texts”?

AC: It would be presumptuous on my part to say that I am a re-shaper. I would be a re-shaper if I had decided to do a rhythmic version of all the songs for the performance, but I did it only for specific songs, not for all of them. So yes, the last definition that you used is the right one.

DR spoke to Laura Tenschert, host of the Definitely Dylan podcast, over videochat in October, followed by an email exchange in December. The Definitely Dylan podcast is available on all podcast platforms; Definitely Dylan radio is available through Spotify; or you can visit definitelydylan.com. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DR: At the 2019, World of Bob Dylan symposium in Tulsa, you gave a presentation that set the conference abuzz? What was the gist of that presentation? And how did you feel it was received?

LT: I wanted to be a part of this conference, because although Definitely Dylan is first and foremost meant to be entertaining and fun, I’m also a recovering academic, so I bring that background into what I talk about. The conference was called “World of Bob Dylan,” so in my presentation, “What’s a Sweetheart Like You Doing in a Dump Like This?,” I wanted to talk about the role of women in that world. My point was that if we want to understand the role women play in Bob Dylan’s work, whether as characters in his songs, or as his collaborators or romantic partners, women need to be part of the conversation. Bob Dylan is one of the most influential figures in popular culture, so we need to be aware that our understanding of his work and his cultural impact is shaped by the fact that the scholarship and criticism has been dominated by men. In fact, one of the few people who had written about Dylan and misogyny at that point was Christopher Ricks. I’m not saying that men cannot weigh in on the topic, but the conversation cannot be led by men! The one quote by a woman that often gets cited is by Marion Meade, who wrote in the New York Times in 1971 that there’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs than “Just Like a Woman.” This line just gets repeated over and over as proof that women think this song is sexist. So in my paper, I asked, “Why aren’t there more updated, more nuanced quotes from women talking about the song?” Why is this fifty-year-old quote still the go-to representative of “the female perspective”?

First of all, there is no such thing as one female perspective, and Meade’s quote merely reflects her own personal outlook, as well as the time at which the piece was written. Some women might find the song sexist, but others won’t. To me personally, “Just Like a Woman” is a song about femininity. The woman sung about has no choice but to play the role allocated to her by the society of her time—she performs her femininity and it gives her power in the moment the male singer is attracted to her. But as a woman in the mid-60s she also holds very little actual power, and so in a moment of weakness, when she isn’t able to perform the role of “woman” anymore, she’s reduced to a “little girl.” No wonder Marion Meade, who was writing only five years after Blonde on Blonde came out, rejected this song, since it represented an idea of womanhood that the second wave feminism of her time was striving to overcome. But also, “Just Like a Woman” has been covered by a lot of female artists, who have all brought out different sides to the song. To me, those covers are part of the conversation. So I think you can’t just ask “is this song sexist or not?” Dylan’s songs are complex and nuanced and their discussion needs to match that.

But there is a very real problem of sexism in the world of Dylan, particularly in the way the male-dominated discourse has treated, or rather mis-treated, the real-life women in Bob Dylan’s life. And I think the “buzz” you refer to in your question came from the fact that I called out a few established Dylan critics for their misogyny. For example, when Bob met Sara, she worked as a secretary for the Time Life company in the film department, and she was the one that introduced Dylan to D.A. Pennebaker, yet the vast majority of books about Dylan reduce her to a “former playboy bunny,” which diminishes her role and makes it all about her looks. Also, why is it that when we think of Dylan’s “muses,” it’s always the white women in Dylan’s life, even though we now know that he was in meaningful relationships with Black women as well. In general, I think the influence of Black women on Dylan’s work is really underrated. The singers in his band from the late 70s to the mid-80s were incredible musicians who helped define his sound at the time and played a prominent role in his stage show, but Clinton Heylin insists on calling them “girlsingers.” I just find that so disrespectful. For example, Clydie King is still so under-appreciated in what she contributed to Dylan’s work, and how deep their connection was. This is something I feel quite strongly about, something that I was pointing out in my talk, that all this is shaped by the fact that the writers on Dylan have historically been very white, and very male, and of a certain generation. And I think that our understanding of Dylan and his collaborators would shift if that pool became more diverse.

In my talk, I was making the case for why we need more women, but the same case can and should be made for more LGBTQ people, and more non-white people. And I think, at the 2019 conference, there were almost exclusively white people. So that is a very important topic that needs to be tackled as well.

DR: You refer to yourself as a recovering academic. How long have you been reading about Bob Dylan, thinking about Bob Dylan, talking about Bob Dylan? How did that blend in with your academic career and beyond?

LT: I got into Bob Dylan when I was sixteen. The first song I fell in love with was “Every Grain of Sand,” which, I think, is not the usual gateway to Dylan. But I think, if that one gets you, you’re in. I started reading books about Bob Dylan pretty immediately, because I really loved reading biographies when I was younger. I was always interested in music. But the turning point with Dylan probably came when I started reading Paul Williams—his Performing Artist trilogy really changed the way that I thought about not just Dylan, but maybe even generally reframed how I think about art, how I think about music and performance. It was quite a formative read for me. I was always interested in music and language, and I studied Comparative Literature at university. I wrote my Bachelor’s dissertation on Dylan, and though I don’t think it was very good, it was my first time writing about Dylan, so it’s significant to me in hindsight, because I otherwise kept my academic work and my love for Dylan separate. I started doing a PhD on language philosophy, on Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, but eventually I decided to drop out. Afterwards, when I was trying to figure out what to do next, I had the idea of starting a radio show, because I wanted an outlet that would be both fun and creative, and it was immediately clear to me that it would have to be about Bob Dylan. That’s how Definitely Dylan was born. And I have to say, the moment I left academia and started writing about a topic I really loved, I feel like I found my voice. I like thinking critically about Bob Dylan’s music, but I intend for the show to be accessible for people who aren’t academics as well.

DR: Tell us more about Definitely Dylan. How did it begin and how has it evolved?

LT: Definitely Dylan is now also a podcast but it started out as a radio show in early 2018, at a London arts radio station that was crazy enough to take a chance on a weekly, one-hour show about Bob Dylan. From the beginning, I knew that I didn’t just want it to be a Bob Dylan jukebox, but that I wanted to talk about the songs and the performances as well. That’s why it was initially a radio show, because I wanted the audience to listen to the performances, and for the performances and the discussion to illuminate one another, hopefully. The idea was to take a small aspect of Dylan’s work and focus on that for an hour. For example, for the anniversary of the “Judas” incident, I dedicated an hour to the role of Judas in Dylan’s lyrics throughout his career. For one, I found it interesting that there’s enough there to fill an entire hour, but we can also trace how Dylan evolved as a songwriter through the years, and how he uses this biblical figure, whose name has somehow become entangled with Dylan’s own story, in his own songs. When you look at all this, it somehow puts the heckling incident from 1966 in context. I loved the freedom of those early radio episodes, but the weekly deadline was brutal, so now these episodes are more conversational. They’re co-hosted by my partner Robert, who’s a huge Dylan fan as well as a musician, so he picks up on a lot of details in the performance or the recording that a non-musician might not hear. Sometimes our conversations revolve around a theme, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes a theme emerges over the course of the episode.

These days I spend a lot of my time on the Definitely Dylan podcast, which began last year, when we were all in lockdown and Dylan released “Murder Most Foul.” The song came so out of left field, and I had some time on my hands, so I decided to finally make the jump to a podcast. These podcast episodes are deep dives, and I’m creating them in the hopes that they will find an audience that is willing to go that deep with me. This is quite liberating, because on the radio, I always felt like I had to keep things accessible for people who aren’t already huge Dylan fans, but now on the podcast, I can get as nerdy as I want. I started writing about “Murder Most Foul,” and then later, “I Contain Multitudes.” I have an ongoing series on Rough and Rowdy Ways, where I talk about the themes on the album. For example, in Chapter Two, I talk about themes of creation and creativity, particularly in “My Own Version of You” and “Mother of Muses.” I also did an episode on Shadow Kingdom that I’m really proud of. I enjoy the challenge of working on Dylan’s recent output, and it really is a challenge because you can’t just say, “Well, scholar X thinks this, scholar Y thinks that,” but instead, it’s uncharted territory, which allows me to present my own thoughts, which is so exciting. I think what I do is different in a few ways: I’m younger than the bulk of Dylan scholars, and I’m a woman, and I also work in a different medium, which allows for a new approach, and maybe finds a different audience, because the people who listen to podcasts might not be the same people who check Expecting Rain, or read Christopher Ricks, but they might listen to a podcast while they do the dishes. And I try to make these episodes sound as good as the podcasts I like to listen to, which usually have a big team of producers and editors and engineers. On Definitely Dylan, it’s just me. It’s a labor of love, although I started a Patreon this year, where people can support my work, and that really helps me out.

DR: How did you feel when you were asked to become a board member for the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies in Tulsa?

LT: I felt very honored because going to this Tulsa conference was exciting on so many levels, including getting to know the people that I had been reading for years, and to meet some of the people involved in the Bob Dylan Institute, and at the Bob Dylan Archive, and the Bob Dylan Center. It was very exciting that they apparently saw what I do, and heard what I have to say, and wanted to make my voice in some way part of what they’re doing.

DR: At the Dylan@80 virtual conference in May 2021, you led a panel called Twenty-First Century Dylan. So let me ask you a question you yourself posed: How do we talk about Dylan in the twenty-first century?

LT: I came up with the topic of the panel because I think it’s important to consider how we talk about Dylan in the twenty-first century, and to consciously be aware that things have changed since the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. There is now a new generation of fans that are talking about Dylan. To people who are now in their sixties, seventies, eighties, who grew up with and alongside Dylan, he was the artist who stood for the promise of the 60s, and they placed a lot of hope in him. Younger people might be aware of that, but they have their own associations. They might have first encountered him as the guy in the wacky wig in the “Must Be Santa” video, for instance. They can view the trajectory of his career in hindsight, and that can really help put things in perspective.

In the spirit of my 2019 presentation, I wanted to invite three speakers with perspectives that I felt were really interesting, different, and otherwise underrepresented. Ludovic Foster spoke about “Bob Dylan’s Queer Gesture,” Scott Warmuth presented some of his extraordinary findings in “Puzzles and Treasure Maps: Subtext Through Appropriation,” and Rebecca Slaman spoke about internet-native Dylan fandom in “Bob Nation: Twitter, Tweens, and Twinks.” In my introduction, I argued that what we need as part of Dylan studies in the twenty-first century are new perspectives, new media, and irreverence, and the speakers all reflected one or several of these. I already made my case for new perspectives, and new media is perhaps self-explanatory too, especially coming from a podcaster. To me, a more irreverent tone when talking about Dylan is the result of all of these. Bob Dylan is not a god, and he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal. For one, thinking of Bob Dylan only as “serious artist” and “Nobel laureate” is incredibly boring—I can’t even bring that together with how I think about his music. But also, great art is relatable because it’s created by flawed human beings, so let’s not take Bob Dylan nor ourselves too seriously, and rather enjoy the memes, silly Twitter threads, TikTok skits, and lighthearted podcasts. I think it’s good to continuously question how we approach Dylan and this work.

DR: Do you feel like there are enough diverse people working in new media platforms to keep Bob Dylan studies going and to make a difference?

LT: No, I don’t think there’s enough diversity yet, but I hope that’s about to change over time. There is no shortage of young Dylan fans. And because of social media, it’s easier than ever for them to find one another and to have conversations. They might not all be part of Dylan studies yet, but you know, neither was I when I was a teenager or my early twenties. I think it’s in part also up to us and to the more established Dylan outlets to invite those people in and to encourage them, and to ask their opinion, and if they do show interest, to create a welcoming space for them. Because they have a lot of things to say that we can learn from. Having Rebecca Slaman, who is in her early or mid-twenties as part of the panel at Dylan@80 not only meant that the older attendees learned about a culture that they were likely unaware of, it also attracted a few younger people to the conference, who felt represented by Rebecca. She’s an excellent writer, and I hope she will continue sharing her thoughts on Bob Dylan.

DR: What have you learned about yourself through the Definitely Dylan podcast?

LT: Oh, a ton! The reason why I’m so drawn to Bob Dylan as an artist is because I really believe that we can learn about life from art. We can see the world with somebody else’s eyes through their art, and therefore expand our own horizon. I mean, Bob Dylan, he’s an entire universe, right? And I think in addition to drawing inspiration from his songs themselves, I’ve also learned so much from Dylan’s approach to his art, and his approach to his performance. His career has now spanned six decades, and he has continuously kept challenging himself. In my Shadow Kingdom episode, I talk about “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which is a song that is very important to Dylan, I think. In the New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, he talks about the song and says something like, but even if you do paint your masterpiece, what will you do then? Well, you have to paint another masterpiece. So it becomes a never ending cycle, and this continuous creative pursuit, together with Dylan’s strong work ethic, is something I really admire. He’s a genius, but he’s also worked hard to get where he is today. I guess that is more an answer to the question, “What have you learned about yourself through being a Dylan fan?” but the answer to your question is really an extension of that. I find it really rewarding to spend time thinking about an artist that I find so inspiring.

But Definitely Dylan has also given me some confidence in my abilities as a writer. When I was doing my PhD and working on authors who have been written about so much, the imposter syndrome was inevitable. As I said, with Dylan, everything was just kind of effortless, and I was confident that I had some interesting things to say, even though Bob Dylan has also been written about a lot.

I have to say, too, I’m really grateful for the community of Dylan fans I’ve found, a lot of whom have become friends. We have a great monthly discussion group over Zoom with some of the Patreon members, and these conversations are always interesting and inspiring. I put a lot of myself into Definitely Dylan, so it means a lot to me that it resonates with the listeners.

DR: What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a British rather than US American Dylan scholar?

LT: Actually, I’m German. I’m based in the UK, but my native language is German. And, by the way, I basically learned English with the help of Bob Dylan and his lyrics. I mean, I learned English in school, but I really developed my passion for the language through Dylan’s work. For a while I was carrying around a little dictionary, and whenever I came across a word in Dylan’s lyrics I didn’t know, I looked it up. And if you have it in the context of a song, you will retain that word and its meaning. But apart from that, as someone who has lived in the UK for a while, I do think that the approach to Dylan in the UK is a bit different than in the US. I think there’s actually a lot of reverence for Dylan in the UK. I think he’s taken very seriously here, whereas in the US, I have the feeling that he’s, you know, just Bob, a part of the culture. I get the idea that British people sometimes see him as an artist first, and a cultural icon second, whereas maybe in the US it’s the other way round.

DR: You recently traveled from London to Washington, D.C. to catch Dylan in concert. What motivated your journey? How did it go?

LT: It was a spur of the moment decision. When the tour began, I had no plans to fly over, but hearing the recordings from those early shows, I had a really visceral response. Not only was Dylan sounding amazing, but he was playing all these new songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways, which I had spent so much time with since its release. Dylan’s music and my work for Definitely Dylan were a lifeline for me throughout the pandemic, and considering what we’d all been through, his return to the stage after a nearly two-year break felt monumental. So I realized that I wanted to attend one of these concerts, and I’m so glad I made that call, because it was such a wonderful experience. I did a whole podcast episode about it, about the performance and the setlist. I think I was also lucky that the show fell just into the time window before the Omicron variant made travel even more complicated.

DR: What haven’t we asked that we should be asking?

LT: How about, “What’s next for Definitely Dylan?” The problem is, that’s not an easy question to answer. I’m still working on my series on Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is almost done, I’m just waiting for a chance to sit down and finish it. As I said, the podcast episodes are very in-depth and sometimes it takes me months to create an episode, especially because this is not my main gig.

I have a long list of episodes, or even ideas for a whole series that I’m hoping to realize one day, and Bob Dylan also keeps putting out new stuff and going on tour, which means I can get sidetracked because I want to do an episode about something like Shadow Kingdom. I’m constantly inspired by lots of things, not just Bob Dylan, but other art, films, books, podcasts. I like creative storytelling, and I’d love to play with that more in the future. I won’t be running out of ideas anytime soon.

DR spoke with musical couple, duo, and Dylan collaborators Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams in the fall of 2020. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DR: You’ve noted the importance of music as a special art form during your performances, an art form capable of building community and unifying people. Can you say anything about how that unification happens, what it looks like? Is it the lyrics that unify or the combination of the music and the lyrics?

TW: Music itself without the lyrics is the most bare-bones, close to the bone, primordial thing that reaches people. You don’t need language. Music itself, first, is the most primal. But the language—the poetry of it—can affect you the way the music affects you, but that’s after the fact of the music. The poetry can wash over you in a way that that music washes over you. Dylan is an excellent example of that.

LC: The effect of the music itself has always been the conscious and subconscious appeal to me of a song. Speaking of Bob, I heard a couple of things from his latest record. I haven’t paid much attention to what Bob’s been doing since I left the band, for various reasons. I heard a couple of songs from this latest record and you know, I gotta hand it to this guy, there’s nobody like him. And with him and his body of work right now, the music is a landscape for what he’s saying. I was able to go right to the words of what he was saying, the poetry is as moving on a subconscious level as good music is moving on a subconscious level.

TW: That’s right.

LC: I knew when I started playing with him the role of the band. Bob Dylan is unique in that Dylan and an acoustic guitar is all you need. He gets everything he is across with that. If you’re gonna be a band backing him up, then you need to be as subjective as that acoustic guitar. You can’t showboat. It’s not a place to draw attention to your skills. It’s not your place to detract in any way from the essence of what he’s putting out. It was an interesting place to be.

DR: That’s especially interesting, given that he’s always had some of the most talented people performing for him.  He’s been with people who on their own can shine.

LC: I’ve never been one who appreciates the value of words like a lot of great artists do. To be a great songwriter you have to love words, or a great writer of any kind, and I’m okay with words, and they certainly do work their magic on me, but there’s a mystery in music that gets to me right away on a visceral level.

TW: It takes the melody and the lyric crossing over each other in a certain way for a song to get to me. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is one that does that for me. The melody, the lyric of that song—I don’t have words to say what it does to me.

DR: That’s a great example!

LC: There’s a maturity in that lyric writing, and a subtlety, and a nuance in the lyrics of that song. How can a young adult produce something like that? It’s mind-boggling!

TW: It’s like a ninety-year-old wrote it. But, honestly, some of it is just giftedness, and the person being open to let it channel through them. I don’t want to take anything away from anybody’s talent or intelligence. But to be open enough to let that go through you, and put it out there, takes a lot of courage and openness inside a person, to allow yourself to be that vulnerable in front of people.

LC: Yes, it’s scary. Growing up in the ‘60s with what he was putting out then, and the anthemic nature of some of those songs, that was a blatant influence on the culture, and the unity of the culture at that time. And that’s on a very conscious level. He sort of made social justice become fashionable or enabled it to become fashionable. And it wasn’t just him. But he was the primary voice.

TW: Joan Baez might beg to differ.

DR: That’s a really interesting way to put it. Because that’s where we are now.

LC: The social justice movement ended up with some sort of sex appeal because that’s what’s gonna make a universal movement. It has to have sex appeal of some sort, and I don’t mean that literally. Through that, it becomes fashionable, trendy.  It starts out with the hip and Bohemian people thinking about it, and then it goes to the gay people, and then it ends up in Long Island. And once it’s there, then it universal. And then it becomes a commercial, moneymaking thing, and then the whole thing gets destroyed.

To answer your question, that on its most obvious level, “Blowin’ in The Wind” was the anthem of the time. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Hard Rain,” all these tunes became anthemic to the movement. So obviously they had influence. But then his tunes that were more personal, that had nothing to do with Emmett Till or Hattie Carroll or any of those songs, they also—because of Dylan’s poetry, and because of the honesty that was used to express them, the sentiment of those songs—were so universal that they caused a unity in the listener that was every bit as potent as his political stuff. As Teresa mentioned, with “Boots of Spanish Leather,” the emotion that stirs in people is a unifying thing. So I think the answer to your question is yes.

DR: The speaker, or the voice in Dylan’s song is sometimes dismissive and, people have said, vindictive toward women. Teresa, do you have anything to say about that from the perspective of women, the voice of women, the characterization of women?

TW: Some of the songs feel vindictive for sure. I guess I never thought of it that way. I don’t remember it striking me so much, and if it did, I probably just wrote it off to, “well that’s how things are.” Seriously. Because I’m from far enough back when that was the way things were. So I’m just not calling that to mind offhand.

DR: Larry do you have any views on that?

LC: I never thought about it that way. “Like A Rolling Stone” is probably the first song that I heard that was sort of chastising in its lyric, whereas most pop music at the time was love songs or “you hurt me” songs. “Like a Rolling Stone” is pretty acerbic if you think about it. I don’t think it’s misogyny. I think he’s just painting a picture of the bitterness that’s felt when you get dumped, because that bitterness is just as much part of the relationship as the sweet love stuff that was being expressed ubiquitously, at the time, in pop music. Nobody was expressing the bitterness. I don’t see that as misogyny. All the years I was around Bob, I never got the impression that misogyny was any part of his personality.

TW: Sometimes I’m taken aback by the level of vitriol, and it’s so well-crafted that it’s like, “ouch.” But that goes back to being open enough to put it out there. It helps somebody through something. All that stuff does, if you ask me. It all gets out there for a reason, and I think that if somebody’s going through something, a song will get them through.

DRCan you talk about conveying the meaning of Dylan’s music as a guitarist?

LC: There’s nothing Bob Dylan needs to express himself other than him and his acoustic guitar. And if you’re going to add more instruments to that, and I’m going to be the guitar player whose role it is to enhance what he’s putting out, then you have to think on the minimal level as an instrumentalist. One time I was thinking about trying to do a guitar instrumental album of Bob Dylan songs. The problem I ran up against is that his stuff is really not that melodic. He’s certainly written memorable melodies, like “Just Like A Woman,” but it’s not like a McCartney tune, or a Paul Simon tune, where the melody is memorable. And the music with Bob has always seemed to me like a vehicle that gets his art out there, rather than the music itself being the art.

TW: What I keep being reminded of as we’re talking is my Meisner training as an actor. One of the tenets was: the words you’re speaking are riding on the river of emotion. Words aren’t really what’s going on, it’s the emotion underneath.  So the words, the music, it’s all riding on that emotion. You can say the words are riding on the lyrics, the lyrics are riding on the melody; it’s all riding over the emotion. That image just keeps coming to mind. The words are the canoe riding over the river, which is, the river of emotion.

LC: As a guitarist you gotta be part of that river, you know. You don’t want to be another canoe on that river. You just want to be—

TW: In the canoe!

LC: When we performed, Bob would have really good tunes that were just fun to play, that had nothing to do with anything, except the fun of getting up there, and banging on the guitars. We would do a bunch of traditional tunes that weren’t Bob Dylan songs, and there you felt like you had more license to play your instrument in a more permanent way. But with his songs, even if you were taking a solo in one of his songs, you knew on some level you shouldn’t try to compete with his lyrics.

DR: Larry, having had an integral role in his band, what do you think is the source of his ability to captivate a crowd?

LC: His honesty. That’s it. Honesty and authenticity.

TW: That goes back to being vulnerable enough to do that. That’s some kind of courage to me.

DRHow is a Dylan performance, from a performer’s point of view, different from other performances, for example, like the Grateful Dead, or playing with Levon, or is there any difference?

LC: There’s no difference. All of that is an opportunity to communicate through the vehicle of great music, so that’s all the same. Teresa and I did a bunch of touring with Phil Lesh and that was about no parameters. Phil would even say when we got on stage, “You gotta remember, there’s no such thing as mistakes, only opportunities,” which means just get up there and play, and play, and keep playing until you feel, and connect with each other, and as we are connecting with each other, we will connect with the audience, and there were no rules. The only rule was listen to each other. And with Levon, in not so much of an anarchic way, it was still about all of us being in this together, we’re all contributing, were all on equal footing up here. And now playing with Bob, it wasn’t about an equal footing, and you got into that knowing that.

TW: And that’s okay because that’s a different animal. Like you said, Larry, him and the guitar is really the focal point. Even when it was the rock ‘n’ roll band. And your role was to support that.

LC: And there was no resentment at all. I was glad to be part of something like that because his volume of work deserves that, and on my own personal level, after eight years of that, I knew that I had to put myself in situations where I had a broader opportunity to express myself.

TW: And what you did with Bob was part of being a journeyman, no matter what level of musician you are, in supporting something like that, that moves the artist like that, like you’ve described being in Spain, being on stage, and you guys doing something like “Blowin’ in The Wind.” It’s part of why you become a musician, to be part of something that moves an artist like that. Journeyman is kind of the right word. Crossman.

DRThere must be incredible fatigue that goes with that kind of life.

TW: You can’t even imagine. Can I just say with Levon, without saying it out loud, he required honesty. He was the North Star musically, and he was a touchstone for me as an actor, and a musician, and a singer, before I ever dreamed that I would meet him and work with him or any of that. He is a touchstone for me as an artist. If anyone ever asks me who’s my favorite actor-singer, I would say Levon, because the honesty level is painful. It would just slay you. He expected everybody to bring their game and pull the others up by doing it. And it was very freeing working with him. He wants you to bring it, don’t stand back, and it was liberating, and encouraging.

LC: And that’s connecting to each other on the stage, and through that we connect to the audience, and the connection to the audience comes back to you, and that’s a cycle that just keeps feeding on itself.

DRYou’ve both won accolades for Americana music. From your perspective Teresa, especially as a female artist, how do you see Dylan’s influence, and his place, and relative to where you are in that genre?

TW: I think it’s not for nothing that the Band was working with him, and the Band is known for being the first Americana band. As far as Americana goes, for me the great love of my life is that I got to work with Levon. One of the most exciting things when I first saw Dylan was when Larry was playing with him. I was taken by the fact that he played any genre he wanted to play during the show. It was bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, showtunes. That was so freeing for me because I love so many different genres. When I was starting out, I was thinking, “which genre should I do?” Those folk people were also ensconced in Harry Smith, and all those field recordings, all that stuff. I like to quip that I was the person in the field. I grew up with that stuff. What went down was really raw. We literally were the people in the field. People would say, how did you get with these people (Levon, Phil)? My upbringing was certainly not as a Deadhead. It was so remote from where I am now, down here with my parents. That world was like another planet. I didn’t even know about it. As an adult, to discover that stuff that they were really digging into, that Jerry was really bringing to that band, was that stuff that we were singing in church when I was growing up. So when I first started working with Phil, it was like, “Oh yeah, I know that song.” It wasn’t the stretch that I would’ve thought.

I’m basically doing now what my parents taught me to do in the living room when I was growing up: the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with my little Yamaha guitar. And then I end up working with Levon. You just can’t make this up. And he grew up just over the river from us. And he has a set of great-grandparents that came from right here where I grew up.

LC: Regarding his place in the genre, Bob is ground zero. Bob and then The Band—ground zero for what has become the Americana genre. And that’s because what he did and what they did was take all these disparate American genres, everything that’s organically American, blues, country, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun, jazz, all the stuff that is uniquely American, and they threw it all into this big pot, mixed it up, and came out with a whole different style of music that’s been emulated and refined and expanded.

And when Bob was at his height, and The Band was at their height, I was a fan of both of them, but during that time of my musical life I was obsessed with the roots of what these guys were doing. I wanted to hear Robert Johnson, I wanted to hear Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, George Jones, Hank Williams. I was into the whole Bakersfield thing, chipped teeth and sideburns: country music. I was obsessed with that stuff from the origin. And it took mining all that stuff as deeply as I could to then really appreciate what Bob was doing and what The Band was doing.

DR: Do performers have any responsibility in getting various musical messages across to the audience?

LC:  I think the performer has a responsibility to move the audience. The audience is paying money to have an emotional experience with the performer. And if that comes from directly from the vibrations that are coming from the music that they are making, and that’s the only message that’s getting across, then as long as it’s moving the audience, then the responsibility has been met. From the perspective of people coming to see Bob Dylan, someone who has done plenty of political messaging and social messaging, it’s the same. His only responsibility yet is to give the audience what his honest artistic output is, so if that at the time is encoding social and political messaging, then great. But if not, if it’s just love songs or just hate songs, or if it’s just bluegrass songs, and that’s what he’s feeling artistically, then that’s his responsibility—to put that forth to the best of his ability, in any performance.

TW: That’s exactly what I was going to say. Your responsibility is, if you’re feeling compelled to share something, then it’s got to be the truth, through you, whatever you’re compelled to share truthfully. You’re just sharing the truth as it’s coming through you.

It’s that performer’s truth. Like if Steve Earle needs to expound on some political wrong, that’s his truth in the moment. If it’s melody, just music without the lyrics, that’s what you should share. If it’s a political statement, and it’s your burden to share, then that’s your burden to share. And you have to tell that as truthfully as you can.

LC: And as far as getting a specific message across to an audience, I don’t see that per se as the responsibility of the performer. That’s the responsibility of a politician, or a preacher, a lecturer, but as Teresa just said a performer’s responsibility is to emotionally express the truth of what they are feeling.

DRWhat Dylan songs do you play together, if any, and why those songs?

LC: We do “Boots of Spanish Leather” occasionally and we do “Wallflower” because it’s a perfect little country tune that we sing together well.

TW: We play “Cry A While” during a benefit concert that’s put on around Dylan’s birthday to benefit schools in the area. It’s kind of fun and it has some vitriol in it, but with humor. I enjoy doing that because it goes a little bit in the blues direction.

LC: And Teresa sings that and it’s interesting because it’s a different song when a woman is singing it. And Teresa sings the hell out of it.

TW: We also do “I Shall Be Released” and “Forever Young.”

DR: Given the pandemic and the disruption in live performances, in your opinion, does music matter less or more now?

LC: I’d like to know the answer to that question.

TW: Music is always going to matter. It’s primal. It’s a soother. It’s a happy dance. It’s a common thing. It’s a nostalgic thing. It can reach inside people who are deep in dementia or trapped in their own bodies for some other physical reason. It can reach inside those people and move them. Music is vital.

LC: Given that, music does matter more now than ever, or any art form for that matter, because of its ability to be the glue that binds people together. And it enables them to express the insecurity they are feeling, to express the loneliness they may be feeling, to express the fear they may be feeling. It’s because of this time we’re going through. I think it’s always needed as Teresa said, but now that need has been heightened to a pretty high degree.

TW: It binds us all together and reminds us that we’re all human. We all go through these emotions. It’s the key sometimes to your soul. It’s a common foundation. All that’s going on, the pandemic, the social unrest, the political unrest: music can remind us that we’re all human and we’re all in this together.

DR: Do performers have special leadership responsibilities in this crisis especially during lockdown, and if so, then how can they fulfill them?

TW: Thinking about the responsibility they have—it doesn’t change the responsibility of delivering the truth as it’s being given to them in the moment of their need to express something. They just express that truth. That alone is a leadership move and there are plenty of ways to get it out there. And people at home have more time on their hands, typically, to find the output with digital. I hate that it’s digital, until we can all be together again.

LC: I completely agree with the view that performers have a responsibility to tell the truth. That is the responsibility. As far as being leaders in navigating through this pandemic, I don’t see that as responsibility, so much as if you endeavor to take that responsibility, you do it with honesty. I don’t think there’s any sin in well-known performers wanting to sit back and hide during this time. I don’t think they’re obliged to have any sort of leadership role or comforting output or anything. But I do think that anyone who does set out to take a leadership role needs to do it with complete openness and honesty. That’s the responsibility.

TW: The responsibility is if you have a talent and gift that way and you’re feeling driven inside from whatever, spiritual thing you want to say, to make art, that’s your responsibility to do it. And to me if you don’t, it’s kind of like slapping God in the face if you ignore it. But as far as politically or leading the world, no. I think the responsibility is within you, and what is driving you and getting your truth out. And beyond that, it lands where it’s supposed to land.

LC: I concur.

DR: With regard to Dylan’s music, does the ambiguous and sometimes cryptic nature of the lyrics make it impossible to determine a simple message?

LC: In a cranial sense yes, but in an emotional sense that’s the beauty of it. Because if you allow yourself to be immersed in what he is saying and get away from the cranial part, the beauty of most of his lyric writing is that you can produce your own video in your mind of what he’s trying to say. Then it becomes what it means to you, and that’s because though it’s cryptic and sometimes ambiguous and difficult to follow sometimes, it’s always poetry, and poetry of the highest order. It’s Teresa’s appreciation for poetry that has gotten me to understand it a little bit better, to understand how this stuff can work on you through the subconscious and not look for a literal translation. Just ruminate on what this particular phrase does to you and how it’s connected to all the other phrases in the song. But that’s what’s so enigmatic about his art. If you open yourself up, that stuff’s going to have an effect on you.

TW: If it’s something from the artist’s subconscious putting that down, then it is sheer poetry. To try to combat it from the cranial place is wrong from the get-go. It’s like the interviewer said to Robert Hunter, “We don’t understand what this line means,” and he flatly said, “It’s poetry.” I think that if you’re just putting the honest thing that’s coming through you down, it’s like a painting. It means a different thing to different people. The subject is different to different people. But when performer gives you thirty minutes of how and where and when and why they wrote the song, to me, it destroys the song. And we do it too. I will tell why a song means something to me. Larry tells why he wrote a song—he may say that on stage—but to me you do a disservice, even though it’s juicy to hear. You want a blank slate so it can mean whatever, without you layering over your own interpretation. It’s not your interpretation. It’s what it does to that person. What goes through their soul, which is the point of a piece of art.

LC: Look at a song like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” What the hell does that mean: “Whoo-ee! Ride me high / Tomorrow’s the Day / My bride’s gonna come . . . We gonna fly / Down in the easy chair.” What the hell does that mean? It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. There’s something about it that conjures up pictures in your mind, and those pictures lead to a certain emotional experience. That’s what the words are supposed to do. Bob could have written that just to parody himself. I don’t know that, but I think he went through a phase of writing nonsense because he was Bob Dylan and people had all these expectations about how profound his lyric writing is.

TW: And it still evokes emotion.

DR: With regard to the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan connection, didn’t that help Dylan gain traction in the South?

LC: It did with some people, but it helped Johnny Cash more in the Dylan world than it helped Dylan in the Johnny Cash world.

TW: Yeah I think that’s right. The hero here in the South was Johnny Cash. We watched that show religiously. And the Carter family singing behind them. The Dead wasn’t that big down here either. And the people that Larry and I have played with were really more East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Northwest. Around here, people really don’t appreciate that music.

DR: Do you feel like knowing Bob Dylan makes it more difficult to hear songs with detachment?

LC: It did for a while, but I’m past that now. I’m back to where I can see him as two different entities. There is Bob who I got to know, and then there’s Bob who has been, in my opinion, our most important artist of the latter twentieth century.

After I left the band, I wasn’t interested in hearing Bob Dylan music anymore. Not because of any bitterness or anything like that, but just because the mystique had worn off. But now with enough distance—and these embers have been stirred by his last body of work, listening to some of that stuff, the JFK thing—there’s no denying, the guy is unique. There’s nobody like him, and his ability to tell the truth on a subconscious level is surpassed by no one.

DR: How would you characterize Dylan’s impact on not only your careers but on American music at large?

LC: There is no more important artist in American music at large and on my career. Playing with him all those years and delving through his music gave me license to accept and embrace my own creativity because I was around someone who uses that talent in the most artful way. Through osmosis it gave me license to follow the path that I wanted to follow.

TW: Larry made a nonverbal commitment to not be on the road anymore. You know the road is destructive to family life.

LC: I was having a very lucrative career as a studio musician, which had been my ambition from the beginning. So I was in this frame of mind that I wasn’t going to go out on tour. I was going to stay in New York and do this. And then Jeff Kramer called me, and said that Bob wanted me to come down and play with him, and I said no. And the next morning I woke up and said, “What did I just do!” So I called Kramer back and told him I was reconsidering.  The studio work, as lucrative as it was, and as interesting as it could be, you’d be hired to play stuff that you wouldn’t play in a million years, because it meant nothing to you, but you’re getting paid to do it so you do it. With Bob, and subsequently since then, I’ve been allowed to stay true to who I am as an artist.

TW: Two weeks after Larry left the band, Levon called Larry, and then Amy had heard me and Larry play, and then she called me up to work on the record that they had called on Larry to produce. So as far as how it affected the career, the sequence of events that followed: following your heart about things, like Larry did when he broke his own rule about not going on tour again and going out with Bob, is like sticking to your art. It will lead to beautiful places in your own life. All of those things gave us a platform to evolve our own thing.

LC: Levon gave us a great sandbox to play in, to hone what she and I could be.

TW: He wanted everybody to step up and bring your whole game. Even me meeting Larry was because I stepped out on a limb and sent a tape I had from a couple of demos I did in Nashville. A friend of a friend helped me get a band together to do it. It took my brother dying for me to decide to do something with this music. I plucked up my nerve and sent them in to a contest. That’s how I met Larry, through a friend of a friend. Do what you love to do and be true to yourself first. From Dylan, to Levon, to us as our own thing together.

DR spoke with Mark Davidson, librarian of the Bob Dylan Archive®, via telephone in April 2020, with some follow-up questions in the ensuing months. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DR: I’m wondering about the archive in the time of coronavirus. Are there any safety measures (at the archive) that need to be put in place? Are there any other considerations of how to preserve the archive in case of, you know, whatever might come down the line?

MD: All of the archival environments are stable and remotely monitored, so the materials themselves are doing fine. In terms of the work that I’ve been doing, and Kate Blalack, archivist for the Woody Guthrie Archive, has been doing, this is not the worst thing in the world for us because we’re able to focus on stuff that we’ve been wanting to get done for quite a long time. With the Woody Guthrie Center, and the Bob Dylan Center as well, both of those social media outlets have been very active lately. From the Bob Dylan side of things, we’ve been working through the backlog of filmed interviews that curator Michael Chaiken has conducted over the past few years and we’ve been posting those on social media. So hitting the pause button on all of this has been not a bad thing.

DR: What’s your official title and role at the Bob Dylan Archive?

MD: I’m the archives director for the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Center®. So the Bob Dylan Archive, Cynthia Gooding Archive, Woody Guthrie Archive, Phil Ochs Archive, and various other smaller collections that we have.

DR: What did you get your degrees in and how did that prepare you for this position with these archives?

MD: I did a PhD in Cultural Musicology at the University of Santa Cruz. I started in 2007 and the degree was sort of a blend of historical ethnomusicology and ethnomusicology. I went into their PhD program out of an undergrad in music history and classical guitar from Florida State (University). I had some time in between my degrees, quite a gap of time, where I messed around in my twenties and played in bands and went on tours and made records before I went back to grad school.

DR: Cool.

MD: Like I said, I started that program in 2007. I was studying American modernist classical music—Henry Cowell, John Cage, Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford—and I ended up writing a master’s thesis on a woman named Sidney Robertson Cowell, who was a folk song collector in California and happened to be married to Henry Cowell. She was an incredibly fascinating figure, a force of nature, and very forward-thinking on her folk song collecting and field work practices. That became the starting point for my dissertation on government-sponsored folk music collecting, so all the stuff under the Works Progress Administration from about 1936 – 1941, which was my incredibly big, incredibly unwieldy and seldom read or referenced 700-some page dissertation, which I completed in 2015.

In 2012, I moved to San Francisco while I was A.B.D., moved to Austin to start a second master’s degree in archiving and library science, a master’s of science in information studies at the University of Texas at Austin. It also happened to be one of the few schools that had an audio preservation program, which was enticing. I did a capstone project on the recordings associated with the John A. Lomax papers archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. I was also a research assistant for Doug Brinkley, who’s a professor at Rice and a presidential historian who has written on a bunch of different presidents and conservation issues. He’s a fascinating figure—he appears on CNN as their presidential historian—and he’s done some research into Bob Dylan.

DR: Gotcha.

MD: And then I was on the academic job market. I was writing about the Blurred Lines copyright case and provisionally thinking about turning my dissertation into a book when the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) bought the Bob Dylan Archive and they needed a librarian, or rather I was hired as a librarian. They needed an archivist and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right degrees knowing the right people, and I moved up to Tulsa in August of 2017.

DR: It sounds like you traveled the country quite extensively through your touring band and through all of your academic pursuits. Did you have any hesitation about moving to this middle-sized city of Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time?

MD: Well, you know, I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, the very far-north Chicago suburbs, and finished up my undergrad at Florida State in Tallahassee. Lived in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Austin. And then moved to Tulsa. It was a transition, size-wise, but it’s been an incredible experience getting to know this city and all of the communities that are here making it vibrant and exciting.

DR: In all those travels with live music and looking at archives, studying copyright and ethnomusicology, did you have any encounters with Dylan’s work along the way?

MD: Well, I identify as a musicologist and not as an ethnomusicologist, because my scholarship and my work and my research interests are not field work-based in the same way an ethnomusicologist’s is. As far as Bob Dylan is concerned, growing up for me it was the Beatles, and I was born in 1975, so let’s say 1986, 1987, you have the twentieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s. The Traveling Wilburys came out around that time. The Grateful Dead made a comeback. Paul McCartney’s doing Flowers in the Dirt and that record is getting quite a bit of press. There was a real sort of romance with these rock bands of the ‘60s, but also sort of a feeling of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that the Grateful Dead is still making music. I can’t believe that Starship is so horrible.” Most of those bands were either revered as a bygone thing, or were looked at as washed up, over the hill, totally not relevant anymore musically, culturally, and I think that that was actually kind of true.

So I knew Bob Dylan’s importance to the Beatles’ story. When grunge hit and I was in high school, there was the (Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1992), and Neil Young had a career resurgence with Pearl Jam. And that was another situation where it was like, I know who this guy is, I know why he’s important, but I don’t understand why he’s still doing it now. All of that is to say, growing up, it was a very different time in terms of how these people were viewed. They were maybe revered for their old work, but they weren’t really expected to do new, good stuff.

In college I began listening to early Dylan. I became politically conscious, which is kind of hard to do for a kid from the whitest, remotest northern suburbs of Chicago. So being in school, performing with ensembles, living in Oxford, Mississippi and listening to “Oxford Town” and being there—that’s a moment. Or relating to “Last Song for Woody Guthrie,” the spoken-word recording of Dylan. That was one of my favorite recordings ever, and it still is, of anything recorded in sound history. And (I was) playing that on my radio show at Florida State pretty much every time I had my show, which was Saturday night / Sunday morning, two a.m. to six a.m. I started listening to Highway 61 Revisited religiously. P.J. Harvey’s cover of “Highway 61” was revelatory for me, and hearing her talk about the importance of Bob Dylan in the same breath as talking about the importance of Captain Beefheart while playing the kind of rock music that I wanted to hear at the time, in the Rid of Me era. That was really important. That’s me growing up with Bob Dylan.

DR: It sounds like you have a foundation in folk music and rock ‘n’ roll and American music, and also in archival recordings. Now you’re working with some of the most detailed Dylan scholars in the world. How important has it been for you to get to a place where you’re conversant on the minutia of the Bob Dylan catalogue?

MD: Coming in off the street, if you put me in the Beatles archive and said, “Okay, deal with the foremost expert of the Beatles world,” I would’ve been much more conversant. There are few artists of any era that have inspired the kind of lunacy and obsessiveness around every bit of detail as has Bob Dylan, so it’s a different deal. I’ve had arguments with people about what’s more important, being a Dylan savant or being a competent archivist. It falls somewhere in the middle, but Dylan savants would say no, it’s the knowledge of Dylan that’s the important part. Now all of that is to say, I’ve worked here for two and a half years or more, and my knowledge of all of it increases like a thousand-fold every few months. It’s really incredible.

DR: As you’ve gained this Dylan knowledge, are there any findings, or discoveries, or new understandings of him and his career that have especially stuck out to you?

MD: The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and the thing I’m consistently impressed by, is how much of a traditionalist Dylan is, and how much he takes existing traditions and forms and recreates those in his own particular way. It’s an extension of a folk process that can be found across the span of his career, through his latest recordings. And there are folks out there who have dedicated huge amounts of time to unearthing all of the references in his music and lyrics, or album artwork, or writings. It gets incredibly deep incredibly quickly. The breadcrumbs Dylan leaves, and the interpretation and reinterpretation of his work is all fascinating and remarkable.

Not only that, but with Dylan coming out with Rough and Rowdy Ways, the story gets richer and richer. His excellent, recent interview with Douglas Brinkley in the New York Times is testament to all of these ideas.

DR: What are some of the biggest challenges you face working in the archive day-to-day?

MD: The challenges, without getting too far into the weeds, (include) having a Dylan researcher saying, “We know where Bob was on May 2nd, 1964, and we know that this date can’t be that.” Getting that level of detail into the collection while up until a few months back, it was a staff of one.

When GKFF purchased the Dylan archive, it had been put up for sale and sent to us in a set of boxes, and these boxes were arranged in a very practical way—manuscripts of interest were maybe frontloaded in the first box and they gradually just put stuff in. And then you have a box like, “Well all these notebooks need to go somewhere so they’re all gonna go in this box, they fit in this box.” And so we got all these materials, and part of me coming on was that they wanted to get the Dylan archive open for researchers, and so a lot of the materials had been processed to the best of the ability of the person working on them at that moment. Essentially, there’s a lot of work we need to do as our knowledge has grown about the collection and where things came from and where things should be put. We’re rearranging materials and putting them in the order that they should be and making things as easy for researchers to access the physical materials as possible while building a digital archive system up to the highest archival standards in terms of metadata and the like that will allow them to see the archive in six dimensions. So you’re looking at manuscripts but you’re also able to look at these recordings associated with them. We’re able to do that in an online or at least digital realm that will make the archive come alive for researchers and interested parties.

DR: Will that be available online or will people still have to go to Tulsa to access it?

MD: It won’t be available online for any number of reasons. We hope the archive serves all of the unreleased stuff and stuff that nobody’s ever seen. Dylan’s probably the most bootlegged artist ever—you know, people are freakish about all of this stuff. Like somebody having a recording they shouldn’t have and somebody else being like, “Oh I want to hear that,” and the next thing you know it’s up on the internet—that still happens in Dylanland. It’s an insane landscape. But that’s part of the work that we’re doing, and we have all of the other archival collections that we’re working on too. But we’re getting ready to open the Bob Dylan Center in 2021. That’s our target date. The current coronavirus and quarantine situation—it’s actually been the best thing in the world for me, and also I think for Kate, because we’ve been able to totally focus on the kind of stuff that I’ve been saying for well over a year, “As soon as I get the time, I’m going to do this.” And my God, we’ve got the time now, so there’s no shortage of work for us to do.

The point is, putting this archive together in the right way and going through it and gaining knowledge of the materials and acquiring things that we need is all currently for the service of making the future Bob Dylan Center an incredible experience, so the plan is to make a ton of stuff available so people still have the research component of the Bob Dylan Archive but in the Bob Dylan Center people will still be able to dive down really, really deep into the footage and the session tapes and the materials that we’ve got manuscripts for, and presenting those materials in this multi-dimensional way.

DR: In terms of the Bob Dylan camp, are they still sending stuff to Tulsa for the archive? Is there a steady trickle of things coming in, or was it a one-and-done proposition?

MD: There was the initial sale-and-donation situation. We had I think three shipments of materials, and we have gotten everything that was part of that initial deal. That’s all now in Tulsa. We have a very good relationship with them. And I’m sure that there are more things out there that we would love to get. “Murder Most Foul” was just released and it would be awesome to—I don’t even know if there’s a manuscript for that stuff.

DR: There must be!

MD: Yeah, one doesn’t know.

DR: If not from the Bob Dylan camp, then where else might new archival materials be coming from?

MD: So here’s the thing. There are private collectors throughout the world who have been amassing Dylan materials, photographs or manuscripts or ephemera. And that doesn’t take into account the stuff that has been produced around Bob Dylan, like magazines and fanzines, albums and all of that. There’s a ton of that stuff out there that would be great to have. I think there’s an expectation that—and I think we would like this to be the case too—that Tulsa is and should be the place for all this stuff to live.

On the other hand, I think that archives in institutions can be colonial and cut-throat and the measure of their success is oftentimes based upon what they acquire in this sort of ever forward-moving shark of acquiring collections. And I can say that it is not our desire to keep projecting our worth as a matter of what we buy, what we have, but rather how we use the materials that we do. So, in terms of what we have at the Dylan archive, manuscripts are sexy. Recordings, unseen footage, especially when it’s Bob Dylan, all of that is incredibly alluring. But being able to stitch all that together in a way that makes those materials, and Dylan’s life and career, and the idea of creativity in general, to make those things sing is the challenge. You can do that with a small collection. It doesn’t matter how big your collection is. It’s how well you use it. Point being, the Leonard Cohen exhibit that has been in Montreal, it was in New York—brilliant. It wasn’t based on sitting there and examining Leonard Cohen manuscripts under glass and having this “I’m looking at the Declaration of Independence” deal. It was (brilliant) because the media around it was so powerful. And you could have a display of incredible rock memorabilia under glass and have us all totally flat because there’s no context and there’s no life to it. It’s just you looking at the bones of dead animals.

DR: So you’re talking more about curation and presentation, and even a kind of analysis to present to viewers. Context. Can you sense a philosophy emerging from the Dylan Center about how this material might be presented?

MD: Yes. Another nice thing about our current stay-at-home situation is that we’re having lots of meetings to discuss how to make the material that we have live and how to engage people where they are with Bob Dylan. Last year I guest-lectured in a class at the University of Tulsa and there were two dozen undergrads. I was ten minutes into my lecture and somebody was like, “Hang on, uh, can you tell us who Bob Dylan is?” And I was like, “Oh. How many of you know who Bob Dylan is?” And two people in the class of maybe thirty students were like, “I know who he is,” and one of the two said, “Well, I googled him before class.”

DR: That’s wild.

MD: The person who doesn’t know who Bob Dylan is, we need to appeal to that person. We also need to appeal to of Dylan fanatic-level people. I think it’s going to be impressive on any level, for anybody who comes in. Even if Dylan’s style of music isn’t interesting (to them), the presentation of the materials and the discussion of creativity and songwriting and the underlying philosophy of what it means to be someone who creates will come through.

DR: What is Michael Chaiken’s role in this, and what is your working relationship with him?

MD: Michael is the curator of the Bob Dylan Archive. He’s currently in quarantine in Brooklyn. He has been for some years working to bring artists and musicians and other actors, various characters to Tulsa to do events here and to do oral-history interviews with various people and to put on programming. He is on the front lines of talking with people when acquisitions are in front of us. He’s been there since the beginning, so when the archive was sold, Michael essentially came with the archive. He helped sell it, and he had a knowledge of the materials that was so great in the way of talking about things. He has been a natural fit. Up until now, with the quarantine, he’s been coming every month and splitting his time in Tulsa and in New York.

DR: What are the dynamics between the Dylan archive and the Tulsa community? There are so many entities involved, and you’ve brought up so many of them in the course of this interview. How does everyone ensure a positive and vital role for Dylan studies and Dylan tourism in Tulsa?

MD: The Bob Dylan Center will be the museum associated with Bob Dylan based on the materials from the Bob Dylan Archive, and you’re right—culturally, especially in the arts district in Tulsa, there are a ton of things going on. There are a bunch of museums. There’s the Woody Guthrie Center. There’s going to be OKPop, the Oklahoma Historical Society’s popular culture museum going in by Cain’s. On the Dylan side of things, you have the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa which is run by Sean Latham. And he put on the (World of Bob Dylan Symposium, 2019). He’s been incredibly active with the institute and the board associated with the institute and, you know, what Sean is doing is separate from what we are doing with the Bob Dylan Center and the archive, but we work very closely with them in the same way that we work very closely with Dylan, his management team and that side of things.

DR: Before you moved to Tulsa, were you aware of the Tulsa Race Massacre (of 1921)? Had you encountered anything about it in your research?

MD: I’d heard about it, but not through my research or in school or anything. It’s a truly heinous chapter in our nation’s history, and it’s one that has been historically under-reported. I think HBO’s Watchmen series brought the story to a much wider audience, but the real reckoning is coming from Tulsa itself, in the run up to the centennial of the Massacre. So many people in the arts and cultural communities here in Tulsa have been working to honor the legacy of Greenwood/Black Wall Street and the lives lost and upended by the events in 2021. My colleague, Dr. Stevie Johnson, has been instrumental in organizing a regional hip-hop collective called “Fire in Little Africa,” which tackles Tulsa’s long history of racial division and the continued silencing of Black humanity. It’s been a really inspiring project to watch come together and the album will launch early next year to coincide with the wider Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial commemorations.

DR: The Bob Dylan Center is moving into a space that was previously a museum. How did that come about?

MD: We were incredibly fortunate with the timing of it all. We’d been trying to decide where the Dylan Center would live when the Philbrook Museum decided it wanted to consolidate its collections at its main museum. The location offers us two museum-ready floors with archival storage, a library and reading room, and tons of options. And the fact that it’s two doors down from the Woody Guthrie Center, and across from Guthrie Green makes it an ideal location for us.

DR: Is there anything else you think Dylan Review readers should know about the Bob Dylan Archive and the Bob Dylan Center, including how they interact with Bob Dylan’s legacy and the Tulsa community?

MD: As I’ve mentioned, the Dylan Archive is incredibly rich and deep. It’s changed the nature of Bob Dylan scholarship already in the short time it’s been open to researchers. Numerous books and articles will be appearing in the coming years based upon the work that a handful of dedicated researchers have done here in Tulsa. That in itself is a boon for the city—it’s become the critical hub for Dylan studies. With the opening of the Bob Dylan Center, the general public will be able to engage with these materials in a substantive manner. Part of the challenge there is offering enough for the diehards to be satisfied while also making sure that people with only a passing knowledge of Dylan can get a good idea of who he is and why he’s so important. That in itself has been an incredibly rewarding challenge. And we want to ensure that this isn’t a one-and-done museum experience—that people can come back again and again and see and discover new things. Undergirding all of this is Dylan’s own restless creativity, and creativity and the creative process are the common themes for the entire Center, allowing us to look at creativity in a variety of ways. The Archive and Center are designed to be inspiring and thought-provoking to everyone who walks through the door.

Christopher Ricks spoke to DR about The Lyrics, co-edited in 2014 with Lisa Nemrow and Julie Nemrow of Un-Gyve Press.

DR: The book is a large, hefty, pricey object. It’s over 1,000 pages and weighs nearly 15 pounds. The printer actually had to hand-bind each copy. So whose idea was it to make the book so imposing, and so impressive?

CR: The creation of the book was very much the work of the sisters Lisa Nemrow and Julie Nemrow who are alumnae of Boston University. I taught Lisa many years ago, and I met Julie subsequently. They are businesswomen, and one of their enterprises has been to create a publishing house of their own called Un-Gyve. They have long loved Dylan and when we started discussing this venture, there came into play very promptly their interest in creating beautiful books. So the design of the book was very much theirs. It’s quite unlike physically any book that they have published.

DR: You’ve accrued many accolades in your career, written many works of critical analysis, including 2003’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin. So why, in the scope of your career, was it time to tackle this collection of Dylan’s lyrics?

CR: The time in a career has to do with, hmm, when one’s going to die, quite honestly. It’s a little bit like Frederick Wiseman, the great documentary filmmaker, wisely making when he did his six-hour film, Near Death, which takes place at the Beth Israel Intensive Care Unit. There was a moment in Fred’s life when he could make that film. If he’d left it much longer, it wasn’t so much that he would be dead, he’s still alive, and in January he’ll be 90 and still producing really first-rate documentary films—but there’s a moment where he was perhaps near enough to imagining incipient death, and yet not so near to it as to find perhaps that he couldn’t get purchase on it. So just as I had long hoped to write a book about Dylan, and took some time to do that, after Dylan’s Visions of Sin I became even more aware of what I felt were unnecessary sacrifices in the previous printing of the lyrics. And so the three of us tried to set out in this book the principles and the practice. It wasn’t anything as grand as a theory, but there are principles about how a song might best be set, and there are principles about what you do about the fact that the printed text is at no point a platonic or definitive version of a song. One knows that very clearly. There are great American traditions of pretending that the printed page is a performing art, so Whitman goes on and on revising, and Henry James goes on and on.

DR: It brings to mind Dylan’s revisions. We’ve seen from the archives page after page of rewrites and revisions.

CR: Yes, well you’ll remember that he had earlier editions, first of all Writings and Drawings, and then Lyrics (1961-2012). He had permitted the printing occasionally of an alternative version. So we do have two or three—we have “Down Along the Cove” in more than one version, we have “Tight Connection,” as well as “Someone’s Gotta Hold of My Heart.” Of course Highway 61 Revisited is a good joke about Wordsworth and people who write such poems, you know, as “Yarrow Revisited.” It’s a great tradition. At the same time, to revisit a song is different from revisiting a poem. But yes, part of the case for doing the edition was to have some record, though not a complete record, of printed variants, and to have some record of sung variants. You could presumably do every bit of it electronically—though in fact what we always find out is that an electronic world is a nightmare as soon as it becomes really big.

So the printed variants selection, you’ll remember, was that the other instances in which we quoted Dylan’s wording should all be from official releases by him. We didn’t go to what are sometimes very interesting changes but which he hasn’t endorsed as among his choices as to what he would like to be remembered by.

DRWhy was it time to put this collection together in terms of Dylan’s career?

CR: I don’t have a good answer to that at all. I was born in 1933. He’s born in 1941. There are a few years when he and I are in the same decade, and I really like that. I’m looking forward to his being in his 80s and my being in my 80s too, before I hit 90. It’s very attractive to me the way in which, you know, he has aged. The process of aging in him has been really very important, and very wisely conducted by him. There’s been none of that sort of Robert Redford good-natured pretense that you’re still young. Which Redford sometimes turns to an advantage in his acting but which is a terrible peril in the performing world. In terms of the edition, the absolutely key figure in all of this is Jeff Rosen, somebody about whom Dylan people disagree but who has always been extremely generous and kind and clear in any dealings with me, with us. I had talked with Lisa and Julie, and we had met to talk to Jeff Rosen about some such work. It was I think literally the day before the lights all went out in New York. Dylan had to cancel. Jeff Rosen said at a certain point, “I’ll talk to . . . ” the person he calls Bob and I don’t: “I’ll talk to Bob about this tomorrow.” The idea was about an edition which did these things: had more alternate versions, had some variants printed and sung, and—this gradually developed—represented on the page the rhyme schemes, the stanza schemes which are what Dylan in the Rome interview talks about as a grid.

DR: What’s this grid?

CR: It’s the grid, perhaps, that Hopkins had or Herbert had in the writing of poems. There’s a sense of a shape—better than a shape because it’s active, this grid. Dylan’s word “grid” comes at a certain time in his thinking, had become a very important notion for him. And you can see that there’s a grid, that “Just Like a Woman” is two lines followed by three lines, followed by a line that bides its time, which then has four rhyming lines and comes back and picks up the line that was biding its time. So it’s not that it’s numerological in the sense of the significance of the number three or seven or nine. It’s not metaphysically numerological, but it is terrifically aware of numbers, and the way in which, you know, the word for a poem in the old days would’ve been “numbers.” “I lisped in numbers,” Pope says. So “Just Like a Woman” should be set on the page so that the eye, in looking at it, sees what a very different shape it has from any other song by Dylan.

He loves doing things with more lines than you might’ve expected rhyming, fewer lines than you might’ve expected rhyming, the bridge—the eye should see that the bridge is a bridge. And the eye, in the case of “Tempest” —the eye should see that there is no bridge. It’s part of the tragedy of the story of the Titanic. That there’s the bridge on which the captain tries desperately to save the ship, but there’s no bridge from the ship to anywhere else. It’s as if there’s a deep pun on what do we mean by a bridge? This feeling of the extraordinary stepping stone that a bridge can be, to change the metaphor.

DR: You’ve mentioned “Just Like a Woman” and “Tempest” as songs that reveal something by the way they’re laid out on the page, which the indentions of the rhymes. . .

CR: Yes, it’s the stanza shape, or the stanza grid, and “reveals something” is both the right and not the right way of putting it. That is, the stanza layout brings things up into consciousness, with the gains and losses of bringing things up into consciousness. It’s not so much, I think, that on the page something is “revealed,” as that something which one had not been able to understand why it worked as it did, you’ve got some insight into how it managed to do this. Now that’s very different from its doing it for you. And we do sacrifice something when we learn how it was done. It’s the old thing that you can’t have at the same time on the trees the fruits of autumn and the blossoms of spring—one or the other. I think there are things to learn from looking at the song on the page, especially as to how very beautiful and varied the rhyming is and the stanza shape is. This way in which a line will have to wait for a while before it finds its brother or sister or husband or wife in another rhyme. This lovely feeling—Dylan is very patient. I mean, he’s living in the most impatient society that’s ever existed—probably. Things are very speeded up; to have to wait five microseconds for your machine to answer is intolerable. The songs are very patient. They’re often about patience: “Eternal Circle.”

DR: Are there any songs that you hadn’t looked at very closely in your career, in your listening to Bob Dylan, that jumped out at you as more beautiful or more complex than you realized when you set them on the page?

CR: I mean, I both approve and then have a reservation about your moving so quickly from “beautiful” to “more complex.” The extraordinary thing about some great lines, whether in prose or in poetry, is how simple they are. “If Not for You” is a triumph of simplicity. “If not for you,” I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. In fact, if not for you, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t see the floor. It’s open. As soon as it becomes a list of things, you imagine a quarrel, you should imagine a quarrel in which somebody, since lovers fall out all the time and a lot in Dylan is about falling out “as lovers often will,” the falling out would be something like this: You couldn’t hear the robin sing, but you could hear the ostrich, or you could hear the raven. It’s beautiful, the song, the refrain, because it simplifies it down to: oh, as I feel about you now, everything in the universe could be in my list, but I have to stop the list at some point. That’s then a matter of the rhymes. Because in the last stanza of “If Not for You,” the rhyme scheme changes. You have a little ribbon that plaits it: “But anyway it wouldn’t ring true.” Both “ring” and “true” rhyme in the stanza, and it’s the only stanza where that happens. “Ring” rhymes with “spring.” “True” rhymes with “if not for you.” So as it’s coming to a close, it has this little signing off. Very beautiful.

DR: And is this something that you in your studies and your writing had realized about the song “If Not for You” before setting it on the page? Or was setting it on the page key to developing a greater appreciation?

CR: The trouble ordinarily with very simple things is that you feel, often wrongly, that everything about them is used up at the first reading—or hearing. It’s not that the more times you need to read or see or hear something the better it is, but it is true that very simple music may be used up earlier than something that is in some ways more subtle. The valuable pun may not be exactly subtle at all. “When she died it came to me”—is that a bequest or is that a thought? It’s not actually complex, it’s just beautifully saying really that everything that comes to you is a kind of bequest. “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Isn’t that wonderful?

DR: Your book is bookmarked to a particular page [opens the book]. “I’d Hate To Be You on That Dreadful Day.”

CR: Pure fluke. [Looks at the page.] And this, of course, is of the utmost simplicity. The important thing here is that it’s couplets, but they’re different couplets, because “Hey hey,” is tinier than “Hey hey hey.” It’s the difference between saying it twice and saying it thrice. I don’t understand people who say, “Come on, that doesn’t mean anything,” and I don’t understand other people who say, “Sorry, it goes two, three, two, two, three,” and so on. Dylan is doing something with the difference between saying it three times and saying it twice. But that’s the rhyme—“hey” “day”—which gives you this word, “heyday.” It doesn’t actually say “heyday.” It says “dreadful day.” But “heyday” is the opposite of “dreadful day.” So this is looking forward to the time when you could be done for. Anybody who on their dying day says, “Hey, this is my heyday.” Samuel Beckett thinking, “It’s better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born.” And you can say that the heyday is when you say, “Buster, enough. I’m out of here.” Anyway, among the ones I love going for are “Black Diamond Bay” [flipping through the book].

DROkay!

CR: “Out on the white veranda / She wears a necktie and a.” So that’s the rhyme! “Panama hat” is waiting for “she looks nothing like that.” Our page indents it so the first two rhymes are aligned. Then “Panama hat” is indented a bit and will be aligned with what it rhymes with. Then “Face” / “place,” and so on. You spill on down the page like this, indenting a little bit more always, and then the refrain of course. The refrain is a triplet: “away” / “sway” / “bay” [points down the page]. “S’il vous plait?” So you know where you are with the rhyme. “S’il vous plait” is a bit like “veranda,” the comedy in the rhyme. There’s that interview with Jacques Levy in which he talks about the fun that they had with rhymes. There’s a shape all the way through. Sometimes one sort of guesses at it. Sometimes it’s not altogether clear. Is “were” and “soldier” and “corner” a rhyme? Well, at that point, “lifting” is simply an assonance with “is” and an assonance with “quickly,” so those three rhymes don’t exactly rhyme but they’ve got a sound link in them that they’ve all got the short i. It’s assonance instead of rhyme. We’re helped to see that, I think, by the way in which at that point in other stanzas it is a triplet rhyme. There’s a remark by Norman Mailer when he says about writing and about boxing that the successful thing is rhythm, but being just off the rhythm. And there’s a lot of Dylan which I think is like that. Is “laugh” and “aftermath” a rhyme? “Hand” and “grand” is clearly a rhyme. “Tough” and “enough” is fully a rhyme. “Bags” is an assonance with “aftermath.” It doesn’t rhyme with it. So some of this is certainly up for argument.

DR: What is it about being just off the rhyme? That it adds more texture, more nuance?

CR: It’s a counterpoint. It’s a little bit like what you get in those paintings where, what’s it called when your knee is bent? Contrapposto? It’s famously important with Michelangelo and his David. There’s something about the tiny tilt which is given by having one of the legs slightly off-balance. It gives you the feeling of incipient movement. It’s as if it’s about to move.

DR: So what do you do with a song like “You Angel You,” from Planet Waves?

CR: Yes. I love it.

DRWhere Dylan said in an interview once, Those sound like dummy lyrics that I just made up on the spot at the microphone. What do you do with a song like that?

CR: Well, what weight do you give to what authors say about their work? It’s very tricky. Popular art has a particular temptation to make out that it’s not intellectual, or cerebral—it comes as naturally as the leaves to a tree. So “You Angel You”: “You’re as fine as anything’s fine / The way you talk and the way you walk.” And when he sings, “I swear I could almost sing,” he’s taking up a famous complaint, isn’t he? That he’s very good, but he can’t sing. I think we should never discount what an artist says, but what weight we give to it as a piece of evidence—love that remark of Dylan’s that you’ve got to program your brain so that it doesn’t get in the way.

DR: It’s like in the introduction to the edition, you mention “Negative Capability.”

CR: That’s the Keatsian notion. Yes I do. That is, being in doubt, uncertainties, mysteries without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. It’s not that you shouldn’t be interested in fact and reason, but there can be a point when your reaching for them can be irritable. The poem is a cooperation between things you can reason about and things you can’t reason about, things which will remain mysterious.

DR: Even to the author.

CR: Yes, even to the author. There are very beautiful remarks by all of the great writers, and I think also by the great musicians, but Dylan is in line with Keats in saying that it’s afterwards confirmed in a dozen features of propriety. There are a dozen ways in which I used exactly the right word, though I didn’t have them in mind when I wrote it. That is, I look at it, and it’s as if I can’t have written it myself. All that from Keats. And Dylan speaks like that, doesn’t he? He often speaks as if the song is somehow out there. He doesn’t speak as if it’s a séance and it’s being somehow channeled from some great unknown. But this feeling that you couldn’t have said in advance why that was altogether right.

DR: This plays into the question of genius. You’ve often said that Dylan is a genius, and in fact a “fascinating and extraordinary genius of a certain kind.” And in the introduction to this edition of the lyrics, you also claim that “genius is free to do what it chooses.” So, what is Dylan’s kind of genius and how do we understand it as “free to do what it chooses”?

CR: Some of it is the traditional sort of definition of what the highest imagination is. That is, where do we locate it, the extraordinary imagination that this man has? Now, it’s an imagination fortunately that is always braced against things which are not imagination, but which are matters of fact. That is, he is rightly at liberty to take certain liberties with the facts. He’s not allowed to make up somebody who hits over the head a woman with a cane and she dies. Or rather he’s not at liberty to make that up and call this person William Zanzinger. He’s at liberty to spell Zanzinger’s name differently (from Zantzinger). And there’s that tiny change that it makes to have it not be exactly the court case. Strange how that works. And of course, as he sings it, you don’t see the spelling.

The great account is by Coleridge. It isn’t a definition of, it’s a characterization of imagination as the “balance” and sustenance “of opposite or discordant qualities.” That the great thing to do is be able to have a more than usual state of order with more than usual emotion. A more than usual sense that it is exactly fitting, with a more than usual sense of how surprising that is. “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” So there’s tension. These are opposites. If it was often thought, surely it must’ve been expressed perfectly well already. So there’s this feeling, the combination of that which is new, with that which is true. It’s easy to say something new if you don’t care whether it’s true, and it’s easy to say something true if you don’t care whether it’s new. But to have this extraordinary combination of the new and the true, which is there for me in such a line as “Take what you have gathered from coincidence.” Where “gathered” is partly a thing in the head (“I gather from what you said. . .”) and partly it’s the accruing of things that aren’t just something you understand, but are really gathered, pieces of knowledge, pieces of information.

Tarantula is evidence of things about Dylan. It’s less good than the songs for lots of reasons. But the letters in it are terrifically good. Everything about the butter sculptor, everything about the professor who says, “Don’t forget to bring your eraser.” All those things are very good. Anyway a lot of it is evidence. “April or so is a cruel month,” is not quite the very the best thing that Dylan ever does with Eliot, but It’s a lovely thing to have done with Eliot—even if it’s not as good, as deep, as “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower.” The great thing is the depth with which Eliot is apprehended. “April or so is a cruel month” is witty—I wish I had thought of it myself.

The genius is partly the general case for extraordinary powers of imagination, as the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities, that includes the discord between the words and the music. There are quite different ways in which he sings the words, “It ain’t me babe,” because there are moments within that when he can’t not be resentful and angry about the misrepresentation of the relationship that supposes that it is me, the person you want. When he sings it sometimes, he can’t conquer resentment and irritability and it’s very, very dramatic like a Donne poem: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.” And some of Dylan’s exchanges with people are saying, “For God’s sake hold your tongue,” and others of them are saying, “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, sing a song for me.” I’ve spent all my time singing songs for people, sing a song for me. I won’t fall asleep and I’ll really listen to it.

Then of course it’s the particular kind of genius you need to have if you’re in a performing art. You need especially not to long for the definitive. Artists tend to think, “It’s perfect, it’s consummated, it’s a well-wrought urn.” There’s nothing to do to it, be careful not to break it. Dylan’s feeling is all the time that as you get older, “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” That means a different thing to the singer. And as his audience ages, it means a different thing to his audience.

DR: This brings me to the question of setting the lyrics apart from the music and the voice, which you’ve spoken of as well. You’ve called it a “danger” in “privileging the words.”

CR: I hope I don’t say “privileging.”

DR: I have it right here. You say “privileging the words.” This is in The Telegraph in 2016, after the Nobel win.

CR: Maybe I said it in a sneering, sarcastic way[1]. It was really, “What you trendy people call ‘privilege’.” The argument about whether they’re poems or not seems to me idle. A song is a combination of words and of a voice, or of different voices, and of music. No one of those, as I’ve tried to spell out, is more important than the others, because it is in the nature of a compound that all the things that are in it are indispensable. It’d be like saying, are the wings more important than the tail of an airplane? They had better be organically related. So I try to set that aside. They’re not poems but this is because their medium is not words alone. And it’s not true that the medium is the message—the medium changes the message. I don’t think Dylan ever thought, with the editions of the lyrics, that people would read the words instead of hearing the songs. I can’t imagine anybody wanting this book instead of wanting the songs. I suppose I would, if I were thinking about what I said to the Telegraph—I’d probably want to drop “danger” and “risk,” and I’d certainly want to drop “privilege.”

DR: Okay.

CR: Although it meant something in those days. The thing is, there’s a price that’s paid for doing things. There’s a price that’s paid for every decision anybody ever takes. The reason why great art isn’t sentimental is that it repeatedly knows it’s sacrificing something. The translator always knows he’s sacrificing. This kind of creation is a sort of translation. When Dylan re-sings “Just Like a Woman,” he’s translating the song so that it becomes another song. It’s impossible for there ever to be translations without sacrifice. I mean, only somebody who would want his or her head seen to would suppose that The Lyrics is offered as a substitute for listening to the songs. What this will sometimes do is give, I think, a good account of what the words probably are that he is singing—not indisputably, because there are occasions when he either hasn’t or doesn’t want to be absolutely clear.

DR: So there’s something that’s going to be lost by putting it on the page.

CR: Yes, but there’s something that’s been lost if you were to scorn the idea that you never try to find out what the words were.

DR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CR: I’m glad that you haven’t made central to this interview the question of what exactly are the words that Dylan sings at this point, that point, and the other point. Lisa, Julie, and I have done our best to be fully responsible about it. Lisa and Julie are American and repeatedly hear correctly that which I don’t hear correctly, and that’s often that an idiom escapes me. I remember the first time I heard “Hurricane,” I just didn’t know what the phrase was, what it alluded to. We don’t for instance in England have anything called “out-of-state plates.” It’s a funny little phrase and sung with a certain kind of speed. I just couldn’t hear what it was. Lisa and Julie were extremely good at hearing. I think they in no way disapproved of my saying in the introduction that this edition isn’t definitive. Sometimes it’s not definitive because what do you do about “freeze” versus “frieze”? Dylan might prefer the printed text to be e-e-z-e, but “wallflower” goes so well with “wallpaper,” with what a “frieze” is, as to have that float in. Knocking about near the words of the song there are these other words. That’s a perpetual question, but it isn’t actually a question that is very valuable. Dylan rightly doesn’t want to discuss it.

[1] Not said, but written, I now realize, and put in italics by me. – CR

Music archeologist and collector, Mitch Blank, spoke to DR about his long experience following Dylan’s career and about Dylan’s live performances in New York, July 2018.

DRYou are an inveterate Dylan collector and a longtime aficionado of things Dylan. In fact, you recently donated your Dylan collection to the new Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa. How many times, roughly, would you say you’ve seen Dylan perform? Does any performance or space stand out among others?

MB: I would say I’ve seen Dylan perform 243 times or 381 times, and I’ve seen him since about 1964. Does anything stand out in my head? You know what? I think the blend of footage I’ve seen and recordings I’ve heard stand out more in my head than anything that I’ve necessarily witnessed.

DR: Any particular pieces of footage?

MB: Well, if somebody has seen Bob Dylan perform “Ring Them Bells” with a giant orchestra at the World Music Experience in Nara, Japan, they’d understand what I’m talking about. I was nowhere near Japan, but I was lucky enough to have seen that on film.

DR: How many performances did you see at the Beacon Theater in New York last fall?

MB: This year Bob performed at the Beacon Theater seven times in nine days. I went to all of those shows this time, and while I can’t say that there was great variation from show to show, as far as setlists go, for a few nights he did do a switch-out of his finale and included “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Other than that, I think when people go to these shows on a weekly basis, it becomes like going to church or synagogue on the high holy days. The shows differentiate themselves based on what you ate that day or how you’re feeling that day, or maybe who you met in the lobby; that might have more of a bearing on your interpretation of a show. Also, your seat might give you a different perspective.

DR: Was the size of the space agreeable? How was the sound system, and could you see Dylan and the band clearly? Was it a spectacle with shifting spots and backgrounds, or was it more straightforward?

MB: It was lions and Christians. It was Diet Coke and popcorn. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I would say that, depending on where you’re sitting at any given concert–say you’re in the third or second row and you’re on the right side of the stage where Bob is sitting with his piano and you look up and all you can see is a whiff of hair–that becomes your view of the entire concert. Or, you can be sitting in row 17 and have a full view of everything going on on the stage, and it gives you a whole different way of looking at it. I prefer seats that are back far enough that I can hear. I find that the Beacon sounds are exceptionally great though. I had no issues with the sound; it sounded great. The Beacon is a great place to see music in New York City.

DRWas Dylan there for the Beacon performances—was he fully present in his singing and playing?

MB: I don’t know if you can ask that of any human being other than yourself. How could you even know? If I interpreted that, it would be my own ego interpreting it. If you ask Bob, he’s not going to give you an answer; he knows he was there because somebody got paid.

DR: How would you compare the New York performances to those that stand out in the past? [Often concert goers complain they can’t even hear him, or that he doesn’t seem interested in the performance.]

MB: It’s further down that road. The things I saw on the country road are not the same things I’m seeing on the city road. Everything grows. Bob Dylan in the 21st century is an inspiration to anyone who witnesses what he does now and anyone who saw what was happening at another time; they would either be reinvigorated or not understand what they went to see.

DR:Which songs stand out as gems?

MB: That’s very difficult. Certainly there’s a lot of beauty in the Beacon show and a lot of things do stand out, but if it’s more of a general question of what songs stick out in my mind it’s a different song for every different part of that road; it depends on where I was on the road more than where Bob was on the road.

DR: Did Dylan improvise lyrics as he has often done? Which songs, and how well did it work?

MB: I can’t say that my mind works like that; I probably wouldn’t remember having realized it at the moment. I have colleagues with encyclopedic minds that could answer this question off the top of their heads in seconds, but my most memorable part of the Beacon shows was when I was sitting down and speaking to the person on my right and then suddenly looked to my left and found out my seating partner was Ringo Starr. Ringo and I had a short conversation about a variety of things, and it was my first Beatle encounter.

DR: Can you describe the audience? Pensive, middle-age (or older) fans? Young people, new fans? Did you see any of the fanatic worshippers who usually attend Dylan performances?

MB: Well the answer to that question is very simple: yes–all of that. I saw people that needed to be taken out with nets and some were. I witnessed people who have been coming to these shows for thirty or forty years that I see at every event like this. There were people who brought their children and grandchildren and both the children and grandchildren were enjoying the shows just as much as grandpa. I saw people who were seeing Bob Dylan for the very first time. There were people there who traveled from every corner of the Earth to see a cluster of shows at any given time. There were some of the great people behind the Bob Dylan networks that keep a lot of people intertwined, such as Bill Pagel of Bob Links, and Karl Erik Andersen from Expecting Rain. There were also some people there from nations that you wouldn’t think have giant Bob Dylan fandoms, but it’s all there, and it’s a great opportunity to cross pollinate with people who have a variety of interesting journeys to this event.

Recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma even more of an international grouping showed up. There were five hundred academics and collectors from around the world and people who had not seen each other in thirty years. People made a million new friends and spoke to each other at lectures, in lobbies, in hotel rooms, and at group dinners. It’s a great opportunity to have that community understand the importance of taking control of the known body of work in order to populate the future with the potential to teach what’s come before.

DRIn the recent Scorsese film, Scarlett Rivera’s chauffeur speaks of the audience-performer relationship at a Rolling Thunder concert as one battery charging another. Did you get a sense of mutual battery-charging at the Beacon?

MB: Of course. Anywhere you put a group of like-minded, common-loving people in an environment, you’re going to have a better experience, and it’s going to feed off of itself. Recently in Tulsa we had a screening of a lot of rarely seen Bob Dylan footage that had been compiled by the Bob Dylan archive to show to the very enthusiastic audience who watched it all together in one room. Joy experienced in a large environment with your people will only reinvigorate the experience. Now, a musician who’s going to be receiving this kind of outpour while performing is of course going to respond to an audience like that. I can’t think of any artist who doesn’t. I can think of Miles Davis turning his back to the audience for his own reasons, but you could have a mediocre artist do a life changing performance if the audience is into what that person is doing and you can have a genius on stage performing to a bunch of assholes and nothing is gained.

DR:What did you think of the film in general?

MB: I don’t know how much light I could shed on it, plus I don’t want to be a spoiler. For someone reading this who didn’t get to see the movie it would be like giving away some of the best punchlines and best things to discover on your own. Generally, this is a film that will make anyone who was alive during this period of time and anyone who is now alive to witness it leave smiling.

DR:What was Dylan wearing? Do you put any stock in his outfit, in the song-and-dance man aspect of the spectacle? Or does the music supersede its theatrical element for you?

MB: I have no idea what he was wearing, and I’m sure he changed every day. I would say his pants were great, he looked great, and the band looked great. It had no effect on the music. You know, in 1975 we had perfected the 60’s which allowed us to let our freak flags fly. Perhaps in the 21st century, you don’t need to wear neon clothing to draw a crowd anymore, if what you’re doing is legitimate.

DR:You started out in the folk music movement, and you continue to play traditional music. Do you consider folk music a form of nostalgia?

MB: Okay well, I didn’t start out in the folk music scene because I started out in 1950 and the number one songs of 1950 were “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” I listened to America’s Hit Parade music growing up and once I was handed a transistor radio, I suddenly had a soundtrack. One thing leads to the next and the musical journey is very winding–anyone who is my age will tell you that they didn’t get there by accident. I listen to everything now; I listened to almost everything back then. I listen to things now that I’ve never heard before, much like when I first started listening to music.

Nostalgia? Some people will tell you that nostalgia is a form of depression because you’re not comfortable where you are, so you look back to a place where your involvement with the world around you was more cushioned and you felt more comfortable. It’s certainly not nostalgia–I’d be happier if it was nostalgia–but it’s just a comfort zone. I’ve often said that whatever you may have listened to when you were fifteen years old, no matter where you were, is always going to be the music that you will always feel most comfortable with. It’ll always be your comfort zone, your body temperature water, that you could sit in without twitching. If you were fifteen when Motown exploded, you will always feel comfortable in a Motown environment. If you were fifteen when Blonde on Blonde came out then that’s going to be a great zone for you, but you may have been fifteen when Tempest came out and that might be the place that you feel the most comfortable. We don’t have a clue what the next group of fifteen-year-olds are going to be listening to’ let’s just hope it’s healthy music.

DRWhere do you stand on Dylan nostalgia?

MB: Well, I don’t really know what that means, unless it means putting on a leather jacket and playing to a crowd who throws things at you. I don’t really see anything as Dylan nostalgia. I listen to the music that he was recording before he had any musical contract and I find it a comfortable place to be; the music I hear today is just music that I’m acclimating to. It’s not so easy to find places in your nervous system to store new music because of all the music you’ve already got living there.

DR: How many of the very old songs did Dylan play; songs that almost seem like traditional songs now?

MB: I have a sheet in front of me so I’m going to cheat. At the Beacon, he did some of the 60’s songs: “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, “Blowing in the Wind”, and “All Along the Watchtower”. From the 70’s he did “Simple Twist of Fate”, and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. I mean, what is there to complain about?

DRWere you able to gauge the audience’s response to these supremely familiar songs as opposed to others from other eras of Dylan’s career?

MB: The only time I ever notice the audience is when the guy in front of me takes off his shirt and spills beer on me.

DR: How would you characterize Dylan’s attitude on stage that night (or those nights)? He never panders to an audience.

MB: I think on one of those nights someone had a scuffle in the third or fourth row and there was a bit of a moment where he stopped playing–I forget exactly what happened–but I could see that sort of disrupted his attention. Other than that I think he’s completely focused all the time, he knows what he’s doing, he knows what the audience is going to respond to before they even respond to it, and he is always pleased–as any musician would be–to hear the positive response from an overwhelmed and joyful audience.

DR: Did he challenge you at the Beacon? Electrify you? Connect with you, or wall himself off from all those dark eyes?

MB: The only time I was challenged at the Beacon was economically.

DR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MB: Don’t follow leaders watch your parking meters.

Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Joan Osborne spoke to DR in January 2018 following the release of her album Songs of Bob Dylan.

DR: Regarding Dylan’s Nobel Prize, do you view it as a valuable attempt to include songwriters in the literature category? Is it opening up a valuable interdisciplinary question?

JO: I don’t know the motivation of the Nobel Committee. If a poet can win, why not a songwriter? When talking about someone like Dylan, his songs are poetry. It’s hard to overstate his impact on culture.

DR: In an interview during your promotion of Songs of Bob Dylan, you said that one thing that draws you to him is his ability to “find the universal in the particular,” that even his “political” songs are not “tied to a particular era.” Could you, perhaps, elaborate on a particular image, moment, or lyric in a Dylan song that becomes universal, that you see speaking to all of us?

JO: If you hear a political song about a particular issue, the song will have power for as long as the issue lasts. “Masters of War” is about people profiting from war. Fortunes are made on weapons designed simply to kill people. Dylan is cutting to the chase, raises ethical questions: “I can see what you’re doing” He’s speaking about it in such a way that goes to the heart of the ethical dilemma. He is directly addressing the universal impact on humanity.

DR: You mention wanting to do something similar with this Dylan album (and through your performances of it) that Ella Fitzgerald did with her nine-album “Songbooks” series in which she honored various songwriters and lyricists. Indeed, Dylan himself has been doing the very same thing with his recent albums of standards and his tributes to singers like Frank Sinatra. This might seem an obvious question (what with five-decades of songs and hundreds of artists covering his work), but what is it that is important to translate and capture in Dylan’s songwriting?

JO: When covering any song, it’s the same regardless of the songwriter. The song lives through you. It takes possession of you. It lives in a way it never has. Each version is a different incarnation allowing the songs to live in a new way for another day.

DRWhy did you choose to cover those particular songs on your album Songs of Bob Dylan?

JO: We wanted to choose things from all different eras, songs from across the catalogue. Some of the songs are familiar to people, some are instantly recognizable. We wanted also to bring out material not as well-known such as “Dark Eyes”. We asked ourselves, do we have a way to play/arrange the songs in a fresh way, a way to bring something unique to them, make them blossom, open up in a different way.

DR: In speaking of your recording a version of “Chimes of Freedom” with Dylan, you’ve spoken of experiencing his “restless intelligence”, his continual desire to try different phrasings or approaches to a song. Your “restless intelligence” phrase being such a ripe, expressive one (especially with its echoes of Dylan’s famous “Restless Farewell”), we wonder if you might revisit that collaborative moment and talk about how Dylan has inspired you in your musicianship, in your singing?

JO: Dylan’s restlessness is a good thing. We did not rehearse before recording. Because Dylan changes the phrasing in a song every time he sings, I focused on his lips. We shared the same microphone. When dealing with restless brilliance, your job is to support him.

DRIn your recording of “Tangled Up In Blue”, you sing “Then she opened up a book of poems, And handed it to me, Written by an Italian poet, From the fifteenth century” not “thirteenth century”. Are you thinking about a particular fifteenth-century poet?

JO: No poet in mind. The song expresses an intimacy between two characters. The narrator is invited into her home to have an intimate moment, but he is connecting to a person he is not with. She only makes him think of the other person more. It is an example of the universal in an incredibly particular moment of opening a book of poems.

DR: You made a comment during your show at Roy’s Hall expressing the thought that Dylan’s music is so important now. Can you elaborate on that?

JO: His political songwriting is not dated. “Masters of War” is useful now – for society, the country, the world. Profiting on weapons designed to kill people. A song like that is a way to understand what’s fundamentally human: is it OK with us, OK with me? A song like “What Good Am I” – What will I do when faced with someone who needs help? Sometimes it takes a poetic moment, a song to clear away what’s bombarding us (we’re being bombarded in life).