“World of Bob Dylan 2023.” June 1-4, 2023, Hyatt Regency, Tulsa, OK.

REVIEW by Harold Lepidus


The second in-person World of Bob Dylan symposium took place over four days at the beginning of June. The first one occurred in late May, 2019. There have been other meetings both physical and virtual in between, but this was similar in scope and presentation to the 2019 gathering, with a couple of significant differences.


During the 2019 symposium, there was more to it than just Dylan-related panels and a guest musician – in this case, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. This was the first real chance for fans to see and hear some examples of the deep, secret archives of the work of Bob Dylan, which were purchased on behalf of the University of Tulsa. The 500 attendees had the privilege of experiencing such never before known treasures as the three-chord outtake version of “New Pony” from 1978’s Street-Legal, unseen rehearsal footage from the New Morning sessions, and unreleased songs from the 1976 Hard Rain Rolling Thunder Revue TV special which were left on the cutting room floor. There was also a demonstration of the restoration of footage from the 1966 tour, which was made a priority by the BDC team. At the time, the Bob Dylan Center had yet to be built.


In 2019, it appeared that the Center and the University were working together as one team, but that no longer appears to be the case. Last year, there was the Grand Opening of the Center, with a star-studded pre-Grand Opening celebration for the media. This year, The World of Bob Dylan was part of a separate, multi-cultural event, known as Switchyard, which ran from May 30 to June 4. The Dylan panels only took place from June 1-4.


From Tuesday, May 30 through to the morning of Thursday, June 1, there were a dozen panels, mostly addressing various forms of marginalization, persecution, and censorship. Speakers ranged from Maus author Art Spiegelman to Dylan scholar Danny Fingerouth and others exploring the X-Men comic as a metaphor for marginalized people. While I did not arrive in Tulsa in time to attend any of these panels, one can see the connection with Dylan and his socially conscious topical songs.


To set the scene for this year’s festivities, all of the Dylan panels took place at the Tulsa Hyatt. There were a few conference rooms on the lower lobby level, and another one on the upper lobby level, where there were also merch tables for Switchyard and Magic City Books. Attendees were given a program and a laminate, with different levels of accessibility, allowing people into certain (or all) events. There was also food and/or refreshments provided there between some of the panels. Each night, there were also shows at the legendary Cain’s Ballroom – “The Home of Bob Wills” – with bus transportation provided to and from the venue. Night one was a great set by Rodney Crowell, with Bob Ickes and Trey Hensley; night two was John Fulbright, who covered “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”; and the final night was a doubleheader, with former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and his wife, Teresa Williams (they covered two Rev. Gary Davis songs, and Dylan’s “Wallflower”), and Robbie Fulks, whose recent “vanity project” is a double album reinterpretation of Dylan’s Street-Legal, titled 16, and he gave “Changing Of The Guard” a rare, and beautifully stripped down, outing.


For the symposium, participants were asked to submit proposals in advance, and if chosen, you’d be given a slot at the same time as two or three other panels. One did not have to be a scholar or have a PhD to participate. Some panels featured stray presenters grouped together by category, while others were already submitted as a fixed group with its panelists listed. These panels were sometimes designed as “roundtable” discussions, while the others usually had three or four people giving presentations of about twenty minutes each, with a question and answer section as time allowed.


The panels ranged from academic to historical, analytical to irreverent. There were also a few Keynote Speakers – noted authors, critics, and musicians, discussing the works of Bob Dylan. What follows are selected highlights of panels and events I observed, including three presentations I gave while I was there.


I participated in one of the first three Dylan panels, at 1pm on Thursday, June 1. I was asked to participate by Danny Fingeroth, author of a biography of Stan Lee of Marvel Comics fame, and the soon to be published biography of Jack Ruby, the man who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald. This most likely explains why Fingeroth chose as a panel session, Murder Most Foul: Bob Dylan and the JFK Assassination.


A couple of weeks before the symposium, the other panelists – Salvatore J. Fallica, Jeff Fallis, Fingeroth, and I – met via Zoom to discuss how we would handle our presentations. Originally planned as a roundtable discussion, it was decided that the most traditional panel of individual essays of about twenty minutes each, usually with visual, and sometimes audio, aids would work best. Mr. Fallis could not attend the early sessions due to a scheduling conflict, so he sent a video presentation instead.


To give some idea of what a presentation might be like to experience, here’s what I prepared. I decided to focus on Dylan’s connections to JFK, mostly through quotes, and tie them into a larger context by linking other artists, such as the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Paul Simon, and how their lives, and art, were affected by the events of November 22, 1963.


A highlight of the second day was Rebecca Slaman, with her presentation, “Come Writers and Critics,” part of the Fame and Fandom panel. Slaman (a.k.a. @ithrewtheglass on Twitter) is one of the bright new stars of Dylanology, which is all the more impressive considering she really only got into Dylan during lockdown. Her presentation was a mix of sociological studies of fan behavior, the differences of gender fandom, and how Dylan was perceived critically, with a mixture of expertise, insight, and humor.


This was followed by a keynote speech by Cass Sunstein, titled Museums are Vulgar: Bob Dylan and Dishabituation, which was basically a study of busy being born instead of dying. It was about how Dylan regularly changing gears throughout his career led to an increase in his creative juices by exploring different artistic avenues.


The next panel I attended was The Philosophy of Modern Song and the Ambi-Modernist Impulse. It featured my future co-panelists Erin C. Callahan (“‘Lame as Hell and a Big Trick’: Dylan’s Comment on the Commodification of Art in The Philosophy of Modern Song”, and Court Carney (“‘The Laws of Time Didn’t Apply To You’: The Philosophy of Modern Song and the Zeitgeist of the Discontent”), as well as Jim Salvucci, host of the Dylantantes podcast. Callahan and Carney, both PhD professors from Houston, gave detailed explorations of the themes of Dylan’s most recent book, while Salvucci explored how Dylan is fascinated by a bygone world – not a perfect world, but one he appears to, if not miss, at least chronicle.


The third and final panel that day that I attended was Talking Dylan – The Bob Dylan Podcasters. It featured four Dylan-centric podcast hosts – Craig Danuloff (Dylan.FM a.k.a. “Freak Music Dylan”), Rob Kelly (PodDylan), Laura Tenschert (Definitely Dylan), and Daniel MacKay (Hard Rain and Slow Trains) – all of whom I was familiar with, and I have even appeared on Rob Kelly’s program. Each panelist discussed their own unique format, and Danuloff explained how they were pooling their resources to create their own network.


Certainly a highlight was “An Evening with Margo Price – In Conversation with Jeff Slate,” a keynote address. Reminiscent of his 2019 interview with Roger McGuinn, Slate interviewed Price for about fifty minutes before he accompanied her on three songs – her own “Lydia,” then two-and-a-half Dylan covers, “Oh Sister” and “Meet Me in the Morning/Call Letter Blues.” The questions alternated between her love of Dylan’s music, and her own career. When Margo said she was influenced by Dylan, she wasn’t kidding – she even named her daughter Ramona.


On Saturday, I was once again part of the day’s first panel. Titled Collaborations, I shared the panel with Scott Bunn of Recliner Notes fame (“Recitations on Waitresses & Art Within Terry Allen’s ‘The Beautiful Waitress’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Highlands’”); Ray Padgett, with a preview his new book of interviews, – Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members; and my presentation, “Dylan & The Dead Reconsidered: Goin’ Down The Road, Feelin’ Rad.”


Padgett expertly used audio clips of varying quality to illustrate the contents of the book. While some of these interviews have appeared in his Flagging Down the Double E newsletter, including the hilarious and touching story of drummer Winston Watson, his daughter, and her “Uncle Bob,” many others have not. Having these stories by people ranging from Martin Carthy and Happy Traum (more on him later), to Scarlet Rivera and Regina McCrary, to Jeff Bridges and Larry Campbell, make this a fascinating and illuminating read, and dispels a lot of rumors and assumptions about our Bob.


My talk centered around when I attended the first Dylan & the Dead show on July 4, 1987, at Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, as a lead-in to discussing the unfairly dismissed 1989 live album of the tour. I gave my interpretation of why Dylan may have chosen the seven songs he did after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia compiled a much more accessible version, which Dylan rejected.


After another coffee break, it was time for a Keynote Presentation by legendary music (and Dylan) critic and journalist, Greil Marcus. Bob Dylan is quoted as saying, “The purpose of art is to stop time,” and Mr. Marcus does this with his presentations. In this current era of the short attention span, he’s not afraid to slowly build his case, beginning without any direct connections to Dylan, giving it breadth and depth and context, and lead us into a world most of us never knew existed.


Marcus’ talk was called “The Only Thing Missing Was Gloria Grahame: Noir Tomes in 21st-Century Dylan.” As the title suggests, Marcus explored the connections between the old movies Dylan obviously admires and has always been a source of inspiration in his art, and its connection to Dylan’s most recent works, including not only his art and music, but his promotional videos.


The next panel was simply titled Humor. It featured The Daily Show’s Daniel Radosh (“It Takes A Lot To Laugh: Bob Dylan as Humorist”), Harrison Hewitt a.k.a. Harry Hew (“How Long Can We Falsify and Deny What Is Real: Bob Dylan is the Funniest Person Alive, and Why We Need To Talk About It”), and my “Murder Most Foul” co-panelist, Danny Fingeroth (“The Comic Book and Me: Bob Dylan and Comics.”)


Radosh focused on Dylan’s funny lyrical content. This left Harrison room to apparently semi-improvise his talk, focusing on other aspects of Dylan’s humor. The basis of Hewitt’s presentation was about how Bob’s sense of humor is completely misunderstood. At the risk of embarrassing him, Harrison’s passionate, insightful, bold, and, well, humorous interpretation of the misinterpretation of Dylan’s international humor (often described as unintentional), was a highlight of the symposium. Harry had everyone in the room in stitches, including Radosh and Greil Marcus.


Mr. Hewitt talked about how people used to laugh at the humorous lines in “Desolation Row” until Dylan had his motorcycle accident, and since then, everything was so reverential that the jokes were no longer considered funny. He defended the “sick joke” lines in “Lenny Bruce,” pointing out that of all the lyrics Dylan has changed over the years, those lines were never altered. As Hewitt argued, what could be more appropriate than some sick humor in a song about the “sick comic” Lenny Bruce? Complete with nods to Rodney Dangerfield and even bits of humor from an interview with Dylan’s parents, the whole talk was hilarious.


Danny Fingeroth was next, with an entertaining collection of cartoon comics and graphic novels throughout the decades, featuring either Dylan, a Dylanesque character, or a song lyric or title. He also observed something about the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s legendary appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. When they performed “Like A Rolling Stone,” Hendrix introduced it as a song by Bob Dylan, then followed it by saying, “That’s his grandma over there.” I always thought it was just some off-the-cuff remark, but Mr. Fingeroth observed that he was probably looking at bassist Noel Redding and his frizzy afro, and that’s to whom Jimi was referring!


During a lull in the Q&A after the presentations, Harrison Hewitt mentioned something about being amazed that someone like Greil Marcus, whose work he had devoured (with a special shout out to his review of Street-Legal), would be sitting there, listening to a “goofball” like him. Marcus was among the first to speak with, and congratulate, Harry after the panel had finished.


I caught part of a fascinating panel, Stevan Weine, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry From Madness – with Holly-George Warren. There was no direct connection to Dylan while I was there, other than the obvious (Dylan and Ginsberg were friends and collaborators), but the documentation about Ginsberg’s family history of mental illness, and the medieval practice of a lobotomy that was suggested for his mother, was as detailed as it was disturbing. Ginsberg was talked into approving it as a way to “cure” what his mother was going through, which had a lingering and damaging effect on his life.


The next keynote speaker, Greenwich Village folk legend Happy Traum, charmed the entire auditorium with his talk, “Coming Of Age in the Greenwich Village Folk Revival, 1954-1971.” He began with a mini-concert, playing “Careless Love,” Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Dylan’s “Farewell,” and “He Was A Friend Of Mine” (all songs Dylan has played at some point), then mesmerized the assembled with tales of the early Greenwich Village folk scene, complete with photographic evidence of everything from old records (and record stores) to the arrests of folkies for the crime of gathering in the park. He talked about how Dylan had asked him to learn to play the bass, then invited him to the 1971 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 sessions. He felt he had disappointed Dylan with his accompaniment on the first song, “Only A Hobo,” since it was not included, although the three Basement Tapes remakes did make the cut. So he was pleasantly surprised to find out that ten years ago, “Only A Hobo” was to be included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). And to top it all off, he found a picture of himself with Larry Campbell from about forty years ago, which was not only touching, but appropriate, since we were about to head on over to Cain’s again, and Larry was one of the performers.


On Sunday morning, there were two sets of panels left to go. The first one I attended, Infinity On Trial, was chosen because I was particularly interested in hearing what Definitely Dylan’s Laura Tenschert had to say. Also on the panel were Susan Scarberry-Garcia, whose connection to Dylan goes way back, and her presentation, “A Vision of Wheels: Bob Dylan’s Rail Car and Leo Tolstoy’s Bicycle,” using Dylan’s iron sculptures as the point of comparison.


Raphael Falco was not able to make it to Tulsa to present his paper, “Unheard Melodies: Ekphrasis and the Possible Gaze in Dylan’s Lyrics,” so it was presented by Tom Palaima, exploring Dylan lyrics through warehouse eyes.


Tenschert’s talk explored the evolution of Dylan’s lyrics as updated in his Mondo Scripto (a nonsense term, she noted) series. Tenschert pointed out the irony of Dylan recently saying that the music is just as important as the words, yet here they are presented acapella, so to speak. At one point, she said she didn’t understand why Dylan had drawn a portrait of Barbra Streisand to illustrate the lyrics to his song, “Every Grain of Sand.” My interpretation was that it may have been a play on words – “Every. Grain. Of. Barbra. Strei. Sand.”


I participated in one of the final presentations, Roundtable: Where Beauty Goes Unrecognized: Reconsidering Bob Dylan in the 80s, along with Eric Callahan, Court Carney, and Jeff Fallis. During our pre-Tulsa Zoom meeting, it was decided that we would each give a short presentation, and then we’d open the floor for a Q&A period. I placed my essay in the context of the Bizarro World of how the rockers of the 60s and 70s fought to fit into the musical landscape of the 1980s. The decade began with a series of bummers, most significantly to many, the murder of John Lennon in December, 1980, which had a chilling effect on his peers, including Dylan, Neil Young, and the remaining Beatles.


There was a heated discussion, with much participation from those in attendance. One example: Laura Tenschert said that to her and her peers, the 80s began not in 1980, but in 1983, with the release of Dylan’s Infidels album. I can understand that, as one could say that in America, the 60s as we (think we) know it, began in February, 1964, when the Beatles landed at JFK.


And then it was all over. All in all, a worthwhile trip. It felt like Switchyard is going through some growing pains, trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t. From my limited viewpoint, it seemed like the socially conscious part, and the Dylan part, of Switchyard, did not mix particularly well, mostly due to the time allowed. I don’t know why the Dylan Center was not a major part of the festivities, but unveiling even more rarities in future years would certainly add value to the proceedings.

Aaron J. Leonard. Whole World in an Uproar: Music, Rebellion, and Repression 1955-1972. Repeater Books, 2023. 319 pp.

REVIEW BY Evan Sennett, Indiana University


A mesh of thumbprints and a gaggle of names: Nina Simone, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. They come together, on the cover of Aaron J. Leonard’s new book Whole World in an Uproar, to form the distinct outline of Bob Dylan, who, for some, is emblematic of the sixties. But he is not the only emblem of the era. The time period hosted an army of emblems who, in hindsight, each appeared either to stand for or against the status quo – a standard which shifted throughout the decade.

As someone who never experienced the sixties, I find it really difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to relate to those representatives in real-time. To read backwards into the mythology of the sixties is to be confronted with conflict. The decade presented a series of iconoclasts. These were activists and artists who gestured toward the general instability of the time, and were themselves figures of instability.

This is the paradox of the decade, a feeling of whiplash that can be felt by enthusiasts of sixties music, especially by those who were not there to experience it for themselves. Leonard’s new book serves as an apt reminder that these so-called icons released their music into a culture of hostility, and the United States government often surveyed, profiled, and even punished them in response to their radical creations.

In his previous book, Folk Singers and the Bureau (2020), Leonard covers the forties and fiftes, and frames the theme of hostility in much more tangible terms. The FBI considered the folk and blues artists from this period security threats, due to their association with the Communist Party of the United States (CPUS). In Leonard’s new release, a work he affectionately refers to as his “Sixties book,” the story of hostility becomes much more difficult to place (1). This is not to say that hostility wasn’t present at all – quite the contrary. Leonard makes a strong case that sixties music was built from, and often revolved around, a general culture of hostility. But as the music industry made its transition into the new decade, repression quickly became a difficult knot to untie:

Disentangling the impact of personal decisions, tragic events, and repressive initiatives in the decline of the first wave of rock ’n’ roll is near impossible. What is clear is that this musical movement was met with considerable hostility – tolerated only to the degree that it could reap enormous profits. This was a circumstance that would change little in the coming years. (23)

There is no doubt that hostility was a fundamental ingredient to the music of the decade. But putting a finger on where that hostility was at any given time becomes a less straight-forward task. Despite this complexity, Leonard manages to craft an entertaining read-through of the sixties music landscape. While this historical overview may feel a bit too familiar for some connoisseurs, it is still engaging to flip through the greatest hits of the decade – the arrival of the Beatles, the “summer of love,” Woodstock, and so on – played out in the context of “hostility” and repression, which unifies all of these well-known events.

Leonard’s primary method for locating this tension comes from his reading of special documents released by the National Archives and the FBI. These sixty-plus year old files prove that the US government had its eye on many of the sixties music icons previously mentioned.

Scans of these FBI profiles are scattered throughout the pages of the book. At times, I wondered if this could make for an interesting coffee table piece, something that a casual fan might peruse in no particular order: today I feel like skimming through Nat King Cole’s FBI file… But as Leonard admits in his “Appendix” section, the FBI files themselves were difficult to obtain. This is partially a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed the process of acquiring enough tangible evidence which might have filled a picture book – not that the coffee table was ever Leonard’s intended destination. But this also means that Leonard’s catalog of FBI files only covers 33 different public figures, only some of whom were musical artists. And while the page-count of those files reaches nearly four thousand, some of these files were destroyed or still awaiting release by the time Leonard’s book came out earlier this year.

What we are left with is a relatively slim archive, with many gaps still left to be filled. Nonetheless, Leonard proves a general sense of hostility towards several musical artists from the sixties, and convincingly argues that there was a kind of dialectical bond between these artists and the powers which attempted to repress them. In Leonard’s history of the decade, there are always two “forces” at play: the “forces highly motivated to keep” musicians and activists “out of the public sphere,” and, ironically, “the forces it unintentionally set loose” (6, 7). Each time the FBI profiled an artist, it seemed to fuel the very transgressions the government sought to keep out of hearing distance. And while most of these musicians had no idea they were being tracked by the FBI at the time, the tremors of cultural tension could still be felt by listeners. Conflict became music. For Leonard, this strange dance between opposing forces resulted in “works of wonder” (7).

Leonard illustrates the sixties as a dense period, every moment containing tensions, bursting with hostility, and pregnant with creativity. Perhaps Leonard’s sketch of the decade is a bit too vague at times. His sense of “hostility” becomes a kind of catch-all term which links together disparate events. Leonard even points out that the opening years of the sixties, a time which is generally mythologized under the leadership of John F. Kennedy as “a period of great hope and boundless optimism,” also fits into his narrative of hostility (34). These early years proved to be especially dangerous ones for the nuclear era and ultimately “set the stage” for a complex and hostile decade to come (35).

The book moves chronologically, from a brief overview of the early Cold War, to an entire chapter for each year of the sixties, ultimately gesturing to the early seventies by the end. Along the way, we meet many musical acts who functioned as transgressive forces. Leonard breaks each chapter into manageable chunks, divided into sections typically focusing on only one musical act at a time. Yes, you could read through them all in order, as presented. But I could also see this book functioning quite well as a reference piece, a kind of encyclopedia of sixties music and repression. A reader might easily pick out only the passages that interest them, skimming through the others at will.

That being said, those who do choose to read Whole World in an Uproar cover-to-cover will find a coherent argument to chew on. The mission is to investigate how music managed to make its way “on the FBI’s radar” time and time again (10). This is a mission which is often convincing, but at times a little vague – what is the FBI’s “radar” exactly? Where is it? What counts as being on the “radar” and what does not?

These unanswered questions leave the book with a general vagueness, which has the effect of coming across as paranoid. The FBI is always looking, but we are not always sure where they are, or how closely they are looking at any given artist, at any given time. This is not a completely ungrounded paranoia, as many of Leonard’s extracted profiles prove the presence of the FBI’s surveillance of the music industry, at least for some specific artists. Nor is this to suggest any kind of “grand conspiracy” (229). As Leonard clarifies, this time period was one in which many complex mechanisms were at play:

all of which resulted in the music and the artists producing it contending with both conscious and reflexive reaction. Regardless of the specific tack, the effect was the same: a generalized brake – or worse – on artists trying to bring forward pathbreaking music. (229)

Still, I would have appreciated more specificity here and there. Leonard’s evidence is not always presented in a tangible form. Instead, we get a series of artist profiles that are at times convincing and at other times a bit too loose.

Leonard makes a concerted effort to touch on most of the notable names in the music industry at the time, especially the ones who are well-remembered and celebrated today. Even when artists were not working under direct surveillance, Leonard still attempts to show how they fit within his overarching narrative of hostility. Johnny Cash, for example, is presented to us without reference to any FBI profile. Regardless, he still falls victim to what Leonard calls “background suppression” (98). The idea here is that, even in less radical music acts, hostility was still present. As Leonard argues “there was a multitude of times when those targeted did not even know it was being done to them” (98).

Despite Cash’s public statements about the mistreatment of indigenous people, he does not appear to have experienced any direct forms of censorship as a result of this political stance. Still, Leonard points out that “the fact that he had to” make political statements at all “is revealing of the difficult terrain anyone making stinging socially conscious music would confront” (99, Leonard’s emphasis). Cash’s activism should be noted, but this particular example does not demonstrate “music and repression” because Cash’s message was never repressed. There are several moments like this in the book which come across as attempts to make some of the more recognizable names carry an argument beyond its limits.

Since Cash’s name is on the cover, one would have hoped that he would have played a larger part in describing this “world” of hostility, Leonard’s ultimate narrative goal. Cash’s inclusion here feels motivated by marketing purposes. His name will help sell the book, even if he doesn’t play a significant role in it.

Other names have more clearly earned their spot on the roster. In a section on Harry Belafonte, Leonard exposes a career-spanning relationship with repression. The notable civil rights activist who had ties to Martin Luther King Jr., anti-war protest, and communism confronted the baggage of hostility during the entire decade of the sixties. Even though Belafonte took measures to separate himself from any political party, as Leonard observes, he nevertheless remained a subject “of increased scrutiny by the considerable US intelligence apparatus” (145). In Belafonte’s case, a former financial manager of his had gone on to become a CIA informant, which makes his government profile especially “gossipy” (145). By the end of the decade, Belafonte attempted to continue his activism by airing one of his songs set against footage of police brutality from the Democratic National Convention. The protest film was to air on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” only for the segment to be pulled by the network (171). Belafonte’s work is a prime example of music emerging from a hostile world, met with hostility.

When taken in parts, some of these sections don’t show very strong examples of repression. The picture Leonard attempts to paint ends up being more convincing as a whole. This becomes especially interesting with public figures who have a more ambiguous relationship with authority.

Take, for instance, Leonard’s handling of Bob Dylan. Dylan not only makes the cover of Whole World in an Uproar; he is referenced on more pages of the book than any other single entity, with the exception of the Federal Bureau of Investigation itself. Dylan stands out as a particularly difficult icon to place on a political matrix. This goes beyond Leonard’s “Sixties” project, but I am sure anyone who has spent any amount of time with Dylan’s work has experienced his mystifying qualities – his inability to give straight answers in his music, and certainly in his interviews.

Leonard’s book reveals that the FBI was just as mystified by Dylan as the rest of us. He argues that Dylan “was a subject of a more particular kind of FBI attention” (68). After receiving an award by the Emergency Civil Rights Committee, Dylan’s acceptance speech was met with a roar of boos from his leftist crowd when he made a sympathetic remark about Lee Harvey Oswald (this happened only a few weeks after the JFK assassination). Apparently this remark, along with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo’s association with communism, caught the FBI’s attention.

Dylan’s own FBI file is one of those documents that was not released in time for this book, which forces Leonard to speculate on its contents. All of the negative attention directed toward Dylan from the left and the right, is possibly the reason why he retreated from the public eye during the latter half of the sixties. It also informs much of his more mystifying material for the rest of his career – something Leonard does not focus on at length. But this would have been a worthwhile question: how does the hostility of the sixties continue to inform music now? It might just reveal ways in which we still live with the hostility of the past.

One needs only to look at a recent Dylan LP to see how the sixties still holds a ghostly influence over his music. On the back side of his Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) is a giant portrait of Kennedy. The dead president carries an ambiguous glimmer in his eye – a complex expression coming from a symbol of authority, which we are invited to look back into. Should we trust him? Admire him? Fear him? If hostility rests behind those monochromatic eyes, Dylan is not paralyzed by it. In fact, hostility only appears to spark more from Dylan. By acknowledging the sixties in such a pronounced way, Dylan might be suggesting that we still live with the consequences of that time, its hostility lingering on. But how bad can hostility be if it generates art? Kennedy, Dylan, and his audience form a tense triad. Our mutual glances are like stakes in a circus tent: if you removed one of us, the whole tent would collapse. But by suspending this gaze with unresolved tension, the tent somehow remains standing and the circus can continue.

Leonard’s book promises a wide-reaching story of music and oppression during a concentrated time of hostility and conflict. This story is supposedly so far-reaching that it had the Whole World in an Uproar. To make good on his title, Leonard touches on many of the important foreign influences from the time: Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam to name a few. And, of course, the British Invasion marked a transatlantic phenomenon with, among others, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones. You know the story. At the end of the day, however, Leonard filters all these world powers through the context of the music industry in the United States. And it is through the authority of the US government that this hostility emerges. A better title might have been, Whole Country in an Uproar.

The US was a contentious place for creative people, which ironically sparked further creativity throughout the 1960s. But we should be careful to label this phenomenon correctly. Otherwise, we mythologize the rest of the world as merely in the service of US culture. In that same light, we should be very careful about how we talk about the icons from the sixties. We often forget that those mythological figures who appear to us as icons today were iconoclasts, working against the hostility of the United States. On this point, Leonard manages to treat them like real people, working under real, strenuous conditions. Their stories are familiar in many places, and in others as complex and mystifying as the music that we love.

Dick Weissman. Bob Dylan’s New York: A Historic Guide. New York: Excelsior Editions, 2022. 154pp.

K. G. Miles. Bob Dylan in the Big Apple: Troubadour Tales of New York. Carmarthen, Wales: McNidder & Grace, 2021.176pp.

REVIEW BY Matthew King


Before I can review the latest books in the growing canon of “Dylan in New York” literature, I have to travel directly to the source. To Greenwich Village, the bohemian enclave where a young Robert Zimmerman landed in January 1961, and introduced himself as “Bob Dylan” from “the West” at an open-mic hootenanny. Specifically, I need to visit the apartment- museum of historian Mitch Blank, who holds a copy of Bob Dylan’s New York: A Historic Guide, a new work by folk guitarist, composer, and author Dick Weissman, who was performing in the Village years before Dylan arrived.

“Collecting is a disease,” Blank jokes, shortly after I step into his place one afternoon, his tone infused with a mix of humor and confession. Hidden behind his scruffy mustache is a ready smile, a playful energy. He gestures for me to get comfortable on the living room couch, which wraps around a large coffee table that doubles as a work space.

“There’s been tons of books about Dylan and New York, Dylan and everything. They pop up every year,” he says, shuffling through stacks of boxes. Many of these, I’ll learn, are either on their way out – to the Dylan Center in Tulsa, where Blank is an associate archivist – or newly received and in need of cataloging. “I really wonder what Dick is up to.”

A Village traveler since the 1960s, Blank has amassed a trove of cultural items to rival any small museum. His one-bedroom apartment feels like an archival wonderland, jam-packed with material yet meticulously organized. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves contain labeled binders and folders. Hanging near the kitchen-turned-closet are custom, built-in sliding panels of cassette tape holders. The walls hold countless framed posters and programs and concert tickets, mini-collections of buttons, postage stamps, baseballs. Dylan is his central subject, but the collection’s breadth spans artists and genres, as well as other items that Blank calls “cultural detritus” – political buttons, 45 vinyl adapters, old packs of condoms.

“The neighborhood is always changing,” Blank says at one point. “Back in the 60s and 70s, just a few blocks from here is no place you’d want to go. You don’t want to know what went on there. Today I wake up and it’s the trendy Meatpacking District, with clubs and shops.”

Like many wayward teens, I was drawn to the Village myself over a decade ago. (Dylan hitchhiked from Minneapolis; fifty years later, I flew in from Chicago.) The neighborhood felt like a magical anomaly, a cluster of tree-lined streets within a sprawling metropolis, the ground floors of its prewar tenement buildings offering a kaleidoscopic mix of retail and entertainment to suit any taste. Live comedy, dance clubs, hookah lounges, jazz bars, board game cafes, black box theaters. A paradise of late-night munchies, from falafel and kati rolls to specialty pizzas by the slice and Belgian french fries with dozens of sauces. By now, over half these old haunts are gone or remade, which is a fraction of the change long-time residents like Blank have seen over the course of a half century. Once-iconic coffee houses have been replaced with fast food and pharmacy chains; artistic hideouts turned into sports bars.

Meeting me at the coffee table, Blank sets down the book as well as a couple vinyl records. “This is Dick,” he says, scanning the covers and liner notes, where sure enough Weissman’s name and artist photo are featured. He’s the counterpart to Pat Foster on Documentary Talking Blues (1957), an homage to the spoken verse style that Dylan later employs in Freewheelin’. He’s one of ten young musicians featured in 5-String Banjo Greats (1964), where he plays on “Old Joe Clark” and “Whistle While You Work.”

Years before Dylan arrived in New York, Weissman had established himself as a rising star in the Village folk scene. This connection is featured prominently in the flap copy of Bob Dylan’s New York, which notes that Weissman “walked the same streets, played music in the same venues, and witnessed the growth of the folk music revival from before Dylan became popular to after the height of his impact on the music scene.” Holding one of Weissman’s records brought this point home, but it’s a fact that wasn’t immediately present when reading the book.

Bob Dylan’s New York functions as a kind of annotated bibliography of the bard’s early years in the city. There’s no introduction or preface about Weissman’s backstory (perhaps assuming a certain familiarity on the reader’s part). He doesn’t ground the project in any personal narratives. Rather, his “I” pops up here and there to share an amusing detail or anecdote. The fairly succinct guide, at 156 pages, serves primarily to assemble an index of notable places, people, concerts, facts, albums, collisions, and cultural moments, including those that only an insider like himself might know, and pointing engaged readers towards areas of further exploration.

Altogether, the entries total nearly 100 different sites of interest, and range in length from several paragraphs to a single sentence. Of “The Bagel” at West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, he simply notes: “Suze Rotolo reports that she and Bob frequently snacked here.” In longer passages about more significant spots, Weissman does an admirable job marshaling various quotes, texts, and voices to convey the complex character of a space (and often its eccentric proprietor). One memorable passage incorporates stories from Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, and Michael Harrington – as well as an album cover by Fred Neil – to paint the scene of the San Remo Café, one of the few gay-friendly bars in the area after World War II.

While it’s illuminating to comb through this exhaustive list, throttling between subjects and characters so frequently, and hopping backwards and forwards in time, can undo forward momentum. But the book pulled me along nonetheless with its wealth of detail, including the several historical gems from Weissman’s own experience that he graciously preserves for us.

He recalls the hunt to find his first East Village apartment, navigating the patronage system of rent-controlled units that eventually earns him a spot at a mere $22 per month, but with a $1,000 payoff to the previous tenant. During visits to the Folklore Center, he remembers Izzy Young would leave the store for spells at a time, trusting his customers to look after the place. In one poignant scene, Weissman describes a late-night set at the Village Gate, where John Coltrane is playing for a handful of people, and the manager has begun flashing the lights, even as Trane keeps on blowing for another twenty minutes. “More commercial parts of town… would have shut down the show for obvious economic reasons,” Weissman writes. “In the Village there were still opportunities for an artist to be an artist. Even if it irritated the light man.”

Bob Dylan’s New York also makes clever use of multimedia formats. Each of the nine main chapters begins with a walking map of a specific block or corridor, dotted with a dozen or so key places. And the written entries are paired with nearly as many photographs, an inspired collection of candid portraits, warm glimpses of street life and backroom jam sessions, and exactly one picture of a young Dick Wesissman – circa 1959, in the front row of a house party where Reverend Gary Davis strums his guitar. This geo-visual tapestry provides a surprisingly rich and tangible sense of the Village, its cramped rooms and lively, zig-zagging streets, its subtly shifting centers of influence.

Weissman’s project looks uptown as well, to the Midtown Manhattan offices that form the commercial music apparatus, through which Dylan’s songwriting catapults him to mainstream artistic and financial success. The penultimate chapter briefly leaves the city to cover Dylan’s years in upstate New York, but not his move back to the city in the early 1970s.

If Bob Dylan’s New York feels more academic in its design and purpose, another new book on the same subject uses a more popular approach, arranging characters, drama, and narrative to draw the general music fan into the magic of a potentially arcane subject.

In his recent Troubadour Tales series, author and curator K. G. Miles has memorialized Dylan’s experiences growing up in Minnesota and navigating major performances across London. A third entry, Bob Dylan in the Big Apple, looks not only at the early Village years, but his relationship to New York throughout his career. Over several decades, even after moving his family to Malibu, Dylan has continued to return to the city, always bouncing back “like a proverbial rubber ball.” The book even brings us to the present day, shedding light on which dive bars fans frequent before and after Dylan’s regular sets at the Beacon Theater.

Big Apple anchors Dylan’s story in a more traditional (and saleable) arc, following him “from young Village troubadour to Broadway Bob.” Each chapter presents a new obstacle or detour along his journey to music-god status, from early gigs at Cafe Wha? and Gerde’s to his tussles with superfan A.J. Weberman, the 1970s casting of the Rolling Thunder Revue (from a booth at The Bitter End), and a mad-scramble TV performance live from Rockefeller Center. Miles foregrounds his memories as a Dylan fan to set the scene for many chapters. This persona story feels just as present, if not more so, to the book than Weissman’s to his guide, despite a much thinner connection to the subject. Big Apple also supplements Miles’ authorship with his own kind of revue, enlisting a variety of contributors who were there with Dylan over the years, and who provide their own oral histories alongside the general narrative.

There’s a conversation with Terri Thal, reflecting on Dylan’s early performances – endearingly clumsy and Chaplinesque – and how he “resisted all attempts by Dave [von Ronk] or me to become more political.” Bret Johnson pens a couple of present-day dispatches from the Washington Square Hotel and the Horse and Kettle, trying to unearth the “salvageable heart” of the old Village, while conceding that, “I can’t promise you’ll find Bob Dylan in a bar, any more than I can promise you will find him in the Grand Canyon at sundown.” In a short interview, violinist Scarlet Rivera recalls the awakening in her strict, Catholic high school, when she first heard “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on the radio like “drops of water to someone dying of thirst in the desert”; she also describes the legendary encounter with Dylan on the street – he in a limousine, her walking with her violin case – when he was casting Rolling Thunder, and she was just another dreamy midwestern transplant enamored by the Village, “a place of fellow adventurers, hippy clothes, head shops, people playing chess on the streets, musicians, artists, freethinking spirits.”

As a reader, I found it much more enjoyable to follow Dylan’s story in real time. We meet his contemporaries as fully developed characters, who enter and exit his life at different stages. The book can feel novelistic, and the sustained narratives allowed me to better synthesize all the key places and characters and events, and how they fit together. It helps that Miles is a stylish writer, with solid narrative pacing, who’s found a way to position this Dylan mythology as fresh and memorable, even if some of the contributions feel clipped. (His chapter with the much-hyped A.J. Weberman runs only a few paragraphs.)

If there’s a downside to Miles’ approach, perhaps it is that readers gain less of a sense for the physical setting of the Village. Big Apple includes a centerfold section with a small map and some photographs, but these are easy to overlook, and they’re not particularly interesting artifacts. The photos primarily show building facades, storefronts, street signs; no faces, no instruments, no performances. Because Miles has included somewhat self-interested contributors, there’s also a tendency for these guest voices to posture, stretching to stake their claim as an essential catalyst in shaping Dylan’s trajectory. That includes Terri Thal, Weberman (“I revived his fucking career!”), and even Peter McKenzie, whose parents hosted Dylan on their couch for a few months during his first summer in New York (“What occurred during that stay is the unknown missing piece… People have been trying to figure out for generations”).

Taken together, both books build a case that Dylan and New York are inseparable. Dinkytown may have inspired a young Bobby Zimmerman, who was no orphan from the west but the product of “a very ordinary, comfortable upbringing in a lovely Jewish family.” But New York possessed the mix of artistic apprenticeship and commercial opportunism that opened the doors – not only to blockbuster success, but something more intangible. “I don’t know how I got to write those songs,” Dylan later said about his nearly unmatched spree of hits in the 60s and 70s. “They were almost like magically written.” The bohemia of the Village provided a space for him to mirror the greats and find his voice, through unending nights of live performances. The ambitious eyes of lurking Midtown agents helped him gain recognition. And, the fact that he arrived just as a historic wave of national and social protest was rising, affording him a potent topical subject matter, was yet another fortunate coincidence.

Reflecting on the Village in the 1960s, Liam of the Clancy Brothers recalls:

It was a certain sort of spontaneous combustion. It’s a thing that happens around the world at different times. It happened in Paris in the Twenties when Hemingway was writing: a mini Renaissance. It moves from place to place, and there are people who try to find out where it’s going to happen next, to follow it. But you can’t control it, you can’t predict it. What was happening at the Village at that time – it was a surprise to find yourself in the middle of it.

The figures of this legendary era, and its scholars like Weissman and Miles, are all well-versed in the practiced folklore. The underground basket houses along MacDougal Street, where audiences began snapping their applause to placate the upstairs neighbors. The first lone guitar player in Washington Square Park, George Margolin, originator of the “Sidewalk Hootenanny,” who inspired Pete Seeger and an entire folk revival movement, then disappeared from history. But there are common elements left out that I was curious to know more about. Why is Dylan’s family almost entirely absent from these histories, and how do they feel about his journey, the way he’s mused that he “maybe [was] not born to the right parents”? Neither book perhaps reflects enough on the wake that Dylan leaves behind him, how while he forged a success story for the ages, so many in the Village folk scene were sliding to the bottom.

It’s nevertheless a beautiful thought that Clancy describes above, and that Weissman and Miles uphold in their respective projects. The seemingly timeless allure of the Village makes me reflect on this relationship between culture and place, especially in today’s hyper-digitized era. Does the next Dylan need to cross a continent to launch their career? What is the unique power of a Washington Square Park or MacDougal Street when everyone has access to the biggest public stage imaginable, right inside their pockets? Today’s aspiring artists across the heartland might not need to uproot their lives to be discovered; they’re doing it from their bedrooms, on YouTube and TikTok and whatever the next platform will be. And while it certainly might help to be in a crowded place, learning to copy the best and rub shoulders with the powerful, does it matter less than it once did?

If there’s any truth to this emerging placelessness of pop music culture, then rooted book-length studies like these become even more valuable, capturing something like an endangered anthropological phenomenon. But perhaps this speculation is premature. One of the most fascinating pages in Weissman’s book is the map that begins its final chapter, “Other Famous Village Inhabitants,” which reveals Dylan as one tiny star in a busy constellation of cultural giants who all lived within those few square miles, from Poe and Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt to Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dos Passos, Lou Reed, and Henry Miller. If it was ever in doubt, Greenwich Village furnishes undeniable evidence of the enduring relationship between geography and culture.

Collecting may be a disease, as Mitch Blank likes to say, but it’s a rare condition that strengthens our social memory. Reading both books renewed in me a certain gratitude for the work of preservation, not just of physical items but of stories, moments, and cultural shifts that are hard to see when looking merely at dates and facts. Whether in nonfiction book form, or the archives of a jam-packed city apartment, these cultural treasures help us re-experience the past, understand the forces that mold a singular figure like Dylan, and observe, in the abundance of ephemera and anecdotes, all that was different, and how much never changes.

21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely. Edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, and Clare Hélie. New York: Bloomsbury, 2021. 232 pp.

REVIEW BY Nathan Schmidt, Indiana University


It is the twenty-first century. Is Bob Dylan still a musician? Or, more accurately, among the masks that Dylan has chosen to wear throughout his career, how relevant is the mask of the troubadour in relation to the others that he has put on over the last two decades? 21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely raises this provocative question. The fourteen essays in this volume remind the reader just how many different media one can find Dylan in, from art exhibitions to underwear commercials. In this catalog of eclecticism, we encounter the Revisionist Art exhibition, the films No Direction Home and Masked and Anonymous, and, of course, the Nobel acceptance speech, which is placed in delightful juxtaposition with Dylan’s ads for PepsiCo and underpants. As a public figure, Bob Dylan has remained busy in the present century, but it is interesting to note that relatively few of the chapters in 21st-Century Dylan are directly about Dylan’s twenty-first century music, since as of the volume’s publication Dylan had released nine albums in this century, from “Love and Theft” in 2001 to Rough and Rowdy Ways in 2020. Whatever Dylan is saying to us now, he is saying it in many tongues, and the voice, accompanied by the guitar or the piano, is more and more clearly becoming just one among his many modes of expression.


The editors produced this volume following a series of papers given at a conference at the Université d’Artois in December of 2018, and it is clear that they designed this edited collection with cross-conversation among the essays in mind. There are a few cases in which the volume wears its adaptation from conference presentations a little too clearly on its sleeve – for all his remarkable contributions to the discipline of Dylan studies, the entry from Christopher Ricks in this particular book is only four pages long and references the conference directly, which comes across a little awkwardly in print – but, as a way of capturing the dynamic shifting of ideas through the space and time of the conference venue, this book provides a snapshot of what was doubtlessly a meaningful and intellectually rigorous series of conversations.


The first chapter of Edward Said’s On Late Style, which is also in many ways Said’s love letter to Theodor Adorno, provides the title for the volume, and the figures of Said, Adorno, and Roland Barthes figure prominently throughout the first part of the book. While portions like Nina Goss’s chapter on Revisionist Art offer a close Barthesian interpretation of Dylan’s visual artwork, the genres and disciplines covered in the book range from film criticism (Jim Salvucci’s “Masked, Anonymized, and Chronicled”), to cultural studies (Eric C. Callahan’s “Bringing the Margin to the Center”), and musicology (Julie Manson-Vacquié’s “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Creation and Re-Creation”). Those looking for perspectives on Dylan’s twenty-first century albums will for the most part need to look elsewhere; Jean Du Verger’s “‘A-Journeying Over the Shadows and the Rain’: Dylan’s Late Style(s)” is the only essay that thoroughly considers several of Dylan’s records from the 2000s and 2010s; the volume also closes with a coda reviewing Rough and Rowdy Ways. It is interesting to note that the most frequently cited of Dylan’s twenty-first century works in this volume is the 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One.


A brief introduction by Adrian Grafe outlines four different ways to consider Dylan’s more recent work: praise, predecession, profundity, and persona. Grafe notes that “persona” will be a particularly significant interpretive figure in much that follows. After this, the book is split into two parts: “Honest with Me: Late Dylan’s Performing Personae,” and “Roll on Bob: Late Dylan in Text and Tribute.” Nina Goss’s essay “‘I Make It So Easy for You to Follow Me: Making a Case for Dylan’s Revisionist Art” is a bold opening choice for the volume – even the most dedicated Dylan-watcher might admit that the case for Revisionist Art is not an easy one to make. Goss draws a bit from Said and rather a lot from Barthes to make the case that “phoniness is no obstacle to interpretation” (19); that Dylan’s employment of pop art vacuity in his unsubtly revised magazine covers is “bullshit” (Goss’s term, glossing Harry Frankfurt), but it is bullshit that can teach us a lot about the “violating and erasing principles of inscription and personae” (25).


Much of section one draws on Dylan’s film and TV appearances. In “Masked, Anonymized, and Chronicled: Dylan’s Fatal Auto-Mythos for the New Millenium,” Jim Salvucci argues that the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous and the 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One are both “liminal manifestations of the Dylan myth, wedged…between disclosure and deceit” (27). Salvucci argues that both the Jack Fate character in the movie and the narrator of Chronicles are part of Dylan’s “lifelong persona-building project” (27). It is worthwhile to read this account of these two Dylan projects side-by-side. Since critics generally praised Chronicles and panned Masked and Anonymous, Salvucci’s choice to subject both of these pieces to the same level of critique may inspire some readers to adjust their evaluations of these texts. Sara Martínez continues to analyze Dylan’s films, in this case reading both Masked and Anonymous and I’m Not There (2007) as ways to understand Dylan’s performances of masculinity (“Performativity, Subversion, and Mask-ulinity: Dylan on Screen, Dylan as Screen”). In this chapter, Martínez also argues for the ways in which “Dylan’s emergence as a pop music icon coincides with the rise of new kinds of screen subjectivity” (43), drawing from the work of Laura Mulvey, Theodor Adorno, and Steven Cohan. Martínez finds subversions of American masculinities in Dylan’s refusal to be truly present in either film. Charles Bonnot continues to explore Dylan’s filmography in “No Direction Home: When Dylan Does Look Back,” which articulates the relationship between Martin Scorsese’s 2004 documentary No Direction Home and D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan film Dont Look Back, focusing mostly on the implicit critiques of media and authenticity expressed in different ways throughout both films.


Two of the volume’s strongest essays follow this trilogy of film analysis, and they both take on one of the more perplexing aspects of Dylan’s twenty-first century presence: namely, his willingness to appear in advertisements. Andrew McKeown handles the subject with quizzical good humor in “Dylan Does Adverts. Surely Not? Surely?,” while Erin C. Callahan’s “Bringing the Margin to the Centre: Dylan’s Visible Republic” boldly integrates Dylan’s ad appearances within the rest of his artistic mythos. McKeown uses Dylan’s presence in Super Bowl commercials as an opportunity to discuss the relationship between authenticity and iconicity. Dylan once asked a reporter at Newport in 1965, “Why did you go electric?,” and McKeown artfully suggests that, if we were to ask Dylan why he went commercial, he would turn the question back at us in a similar manner (79). Callahan also compares complaints about Dylan “selling out” to complaints about him going electric decades earlier, but goes a step farther by explicating the ways in which “Dylan’s appearance in commercials is an extended performance providing new avenues of interpretation, thus keeping him relevant in the sixth decade of his career” (94). Readers who may feel perplexed by Dylan’s choices in the realm of advertising will find new and original ways to approach the issue in these essays.


The final two essays in the first section are the first to make Dylan’s music a central focus. Julie Mansion-Vaquié’s “Creation and Re-Creation in Dylan’s Performances of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1963-2016)” offers a musicological account of Dylan’s performances of his sixties-era hit, replete with charts of stage settings, tempos, instrumental arrangements, and song structures. While this data is usefully comprehensive, this chapter leaves room for further explication; the conclusion that “Dylan’s accomplishment thus brings him to surpass his own creation” (118) is rather adulatory, especially regarding a song that is already held in near-universal critical acclaim. Anne-Marie Mai investigates the presence of melancholia in songs like “Not Dark Yet” and “Red River Shore,” comparing them with his 2010 Brazil Series of paintings and interpolating the work of other famous melancholics like Kierkegaard, Keats, and Lars von Trier. All of the songs in this chapter are from the twentieth century; when twenty-first century Dylan appears, the reader meets him as a painter, not a singer or a musician.


Still, whether painter, documentary subject, or artistic prankster, Dylan’s various personae tie the first half of the volume together. The same cannot quite be said for the second half: “Roll on Bob: Late Dylan in Text and Tribute” is more of a catchall description of a smaller selection of essays about Dylan’s albums and lyrics and his Nobel Prize. Jean Du Verger’s “‘A Journeying over the Shadows and the Rain’: Dylan’s Late Style(s)” is, as the title suggests, the volume’s one essay that looks closely at Dylan’s twenty-first century albums in relation to the concept of “late style” that Said and Adorno elucidate. Du Verger actually identifies Time Out of Mind as “the dawn of Dylan’s late style” (145), but leaves no stone unturned—even incorporating Christmas in the Heart—on the journey to show how Dylan’s late work “address[es] lateness,” both in the sunset of a lifelong career and of life itself (146). In “‘The Last Outback at the World’s End’: Dylan’s Sense of an Album’s Ending,” M. Cooper Harriss describes Dylan’s enduring fascination with the album as a format for composing and distributing music, applying Frank Kermode’s theory of the relationship between the end of a story and the end of the world to a handful of Dylan albums, roughly half of which are from the twenty-first century. Readers may finish this chapter with some lingering questions about how the author justifies referring to the album “as, like fiction, a narrative genre” (10); Harriss states that the listener should think of the album as “a narrative genre fed by the significant interplay of words and music within a sequence of songs” (152), but it is not immediately apparent how this definition compares with a definition of narrative fiction.


Denis Feignier analyzes Dylan’s reception of various awards in “‘No Success Like Failure’? Dylan’s Awards, from Princeton to the Nobel.” This essay stands out in that it does not focus only on the infamous (and fairly talked-out) Nobel, and that it is also based on the author’s personal experience working with the French Minister of Culture who awarded Dylan a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. (Bob responded to the award in the most Dylanesque manner possible, which is too good of a story to spoil here.) Feignier makes the case that, even though Dylan may come off as dismissive of honors and awards, it often happens that a Bob Dylan-style expression of humility is taken as aloofness. Simon McAslan’s “‘How Could It Be Any Other Way?’ Dylan’s Editorial Decisions in The Lyrics: 1961-2012” is a delightful investigation of Dylan’s refusal to be nailed down to one lyrical interpretation or another even in an official published edition of the words for his songs. McAslan also offers a very helpful genealogy of official and unofficial published versions of Dylan’s lyrics.


Christopher Ricks’s contribution to this volume is a brief evocation of Dylan’s and T.S. Eliot’s Nobel acceptance speeches, and it is followed by Adrian Grafe’s “Dylan Nobelized? Dylan Ricksified?,” which discusses Ricks’s Dylan studies legacy in relation to Dylan’s Nobel prize. The volume ends with a review of Rough and Rowdy Ways – which was released after the conference but before the publication of the book – by Grafe and McKeown. “The more Dylan extends the boundaries of his musical expression,” they say, “the more he wants to be different to his previous avatars and to experiment, as he clearly does here, and the more all the different components of the canvas that he has been painting for over sixty years fall into place” (217). From documentary subject to pop art provocateur to branding experiment for PepsiCo, 21st-Century Dylan showcases that canvas’s eclecticism.


Readers who go looking in this volume for versions of Bob Dylan in the twenty-first century will therefore find a dizzying array of avenues to traverse, from filmography to acceptance speeches and beyond. For Dylan scholars who may not have had the resources to travel to France and experience this particular conference, it will doubtlessly prove useful to have a published record of this fascinating series of conversations. It remains telling, however, that the twenty-first century Dylan represented here is not necessarily the Bob Dylan of his twenty-first century albums, but a more complicated and more expansive character. Maybe Bob Dylan still is a musician, but the lesson of the past two decades is that he was never “just” a musician in the first place. And isn’t the hallmark of a great “song and dance man” the ability to keep us guessing what the next step in the dance will be?

Bob Dylan. The Bootleg Series Vol. 17 – Fragments: Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996 – 1997.) Columbia, 2023.

REVIEW BY Court Carney, Stephen F. Austin State University


“It’s certainly not an album of felicity.”
– Bob Dylan[1]

Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan’s landmark 1997 album, begins in strangeness. Faint plucking, a tapping boot, the sound of thick air. Then, a staccato organ. These few seconds disorient. “I’m walking,” Bob Dylan intones, “through streets that are dead.” “I’m sick of love…I’m love sick.” An album of death, breakup, love lost, love betrayed – Time Out of Mind has elicited profound commentary on its meaning and significance since its release. The blues runs through this record in form and feeling, but the content betrays a more multifaceted approach. The record slyly resists any easy characterization. An album interested in the liminal spaces connecting, and dividing, characters caught in various narratives. Often called a “midnight album,” it also remains a sunset record – the golden hour rewritten as vicious noir. The production, spearheaded by Daniel Lanois, favors the amber dying light, all flickers and shadows. A formidable record of place and time, of mood and perspective, Time Out of Mind continues to stun a quarter-century after its release.

Hailed as a grand return to form upon its arrival in September 1997, Time Out of Mind endures as a towering collection of songs and serves as a dividing point between mid- and late- period Dylan; Before Time, After Time. Some songs became long-held standards in Dylan’s setlists, and others found a new audience as artists covered them. The record works as an introduction, a continuance, a divider, a collection, and an entity. It remains difficult to overstate the power this record has musically and emotionally, as well as its importance within Dylan’s extensive catalog.

Released as the seventeenth volume of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Fragments: Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996 – 1997) now expands the context of the 1997 record through a new mix, alternative takes, live cuts, and several outtakes. Contradictions define the original record, Dylan’s darkest, yet it contains some of his funniest lines. One of Dylan’s most cohesive records includes some of his most standalone songs. This new collection only reinforces the edgy magnetism of the album. Packaged as a five-CD set (as well as in two-disc, four-LP, and ten-LP configurations) complete with essays by Douglas Brinkley and Stephen Hyden, alternate takes, outtakes, and live cuts, the collection reveals much of how the record came together without completely demystifying the spectral web of songs at the center.

In 1985, Bob Dylan released Biograph, a career retrospective splayed across five LPs, which reoriented his life in music by juxtaposing hits, rarities, and outtakes into a collage free of traditional chronology. This boxset, which helped establish the prestige artist repackaging of the 1980s and 1990s, inaugurated a period of coming to terms with the larger question of his legacy. Six years later, in 1991, Dylan released the first (three) volumes of his ongoing Bootleg Series, of which Fragments is the seventeenth iteration. In conjunction with Biograph, this new boxset uncovered hidden narratives and drafted alternative histories of Dylan’s career. Even as he produced new music throughout the late 1980s, Dylan pushed forward a reconsideration of history and an emphasis on seeking order out of the chaotic past. Despite the critical evaluations of the records he produced during this period, the bridge between Biograph to the Bootleg Series (not to mention the origins of the Never Ending Tour, the Traveling Wilburys, and the two folk records) spans a rich period of revitalization. Dylan’s songs on Time Out of Mind came out of this context as much as any other. “But it is a harsh, honest portrait,” Martin Renzhofer wrote of Time Out of Mind in 1997, “of an artist and poet coming to grips with his past.”[2]

As Douglas Brinkley recounts in his liner notes, Lanois studied records by Charley Patton, Little Walter, Little Willie John, Arthur Alexander, Link Wray, and others “to get across the sound [Dylan] imagined.” Some of these singers, such as Patton, were primal influences on Dylan, predating even Woody Guthrie. These artists and their records became the soundtrack to the pre-recording sessions as Dylan began conceptualizing what the record would look like. During these early conversations, Dylan famously inquired about making a record like Beck, whose Odelay offered a compelling case for the musical bricolage that had defined Dylan’s creative and songwriting interests for decades.[3] Lanois took Dylan to mean that loops and beats should be the foundation of the recordings, which quickly began to grate on Dylan. The blues, in mood, content, vibe, and intent, served as the spiritual mood board for the songs as Dylan worked with Lanois to build the landscape that came to support Time Out of Mind.

An important thread to Time Out of Mind, perhaps less obvious than others, connects to Bob Dylan’s relationship with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. The story of Dylan and Garcia and their relationship goes a long way to explain and contextualize Dylan’s return to performing and songwriting. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote movingly, mystically, and even magically about Garcia’s remagnetizing of his performing compass. Garcia died of a heart attack in August 1995. “There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes,” Dylan said in his eulogy at Garcia’s funeral, “but he filled them all without being a member of any school.” Garcia’s death, as Brinkley notes, vibrated across the Time Out of Mind sessions. If we draw a circle around the period of 1985, say, and 1991 (roughly from Biograph to the origins of the Bootleg series), as a discrete moment in Dylan’s career where legacy building began to take center stage, then we might also draw a second ring around 1987, when Dylan first connected with the Grateful Dead on stage and 1995, with Garcia’s death. As Dylan began working on Time Out of Mind in 1996 and 1997, this friendship undoubtedly impacted these sessions. On a related note, in the wake of the release of Fragments, Dylan began pulling out an ever-lengthening list of Grateful Dead covers on his tour in Japan and Italy. Garcia’s presence continues to suffuse Dylan’s creative output.

After a preliminary planning meeting in New York, Dylan and Lanois decamped for Teatro, Daniel’s studio in a converted old Mexican movie theater in Oxnard, California. These sessions (from the early fall of 1996) excited Lanois, who perceived his production work as connecting with Dylan’s new songs. Dylan’s comment about Beck had inspired Lanois and his right-hand man, drummer Tony Mangurian, to layer multiple percussion tracks as a bed to the three blues-centered songs on the agenda. In his studio, with control over the emerging sonic landscape, Lanois hoped this record would be a landmark of lyrics and sound. Dylan, however, began to feel otherwise. The songwriter had long experienced unease in recording studios, where his interest in capturing the essence of a song trumped studio experimentation and development. At one point, Dylan just left. He told Lanois that Oxnard and Teatro, thirty miles up the coast from Dylan’s home in Malibu, proved too distracting. Later, he told David Fricke that he was frustrated with Lanois’s polyrhythmic obsessions, which to his mind, failed to “work for knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism.”

Despite Dylan’s misgivings – and clearly, tensions existed between him and Lanois, however redefined they became in hindsight – the Teatro recordings included on Fragments are some of the most beautiful vocal performances of his career. The Scottish ballad, “The Water is Wide,” which he had performed back during the Rolling Thunder days, sounds both modern and ancient – bending the past to fit into the contemporary moment. Likewise, “Dreamin’ of You” (an alternative take that appeared on Tell Tale Signs in 2008) features such a beguiling loping beat you wonder who could ever consider this track a dead end; the song, however, would be later reconfigured into another, lyrically superior song, “Standing in the Doorway.” Finally, an entire book could be devoted to a third Teatro recording: “Red River Shore.” Unlike the other two songs, Dylan continued to work on “Red River Shore” after leaving Oxnard. All told, Fragments collects four versions of the song, two previously unreleased. Dylan undoubtedly connected to the music, which seemed as ancient and deep as “The Water is Wide,” “Lakes of Pontchartrain,” or any other ageless ballad. Dylan’s voice shines here as an instrument of potent emotional force. Still, this new collection underscores that these songs do not fit on Time Out of Mind. As gorgeous they are – and rejecting as they do the idea that Teatro was nothing but failed percussion experiments – they would distort the thematic and sonic coherence of the finished record.

After Oxnard, Dylan relocated to Miami, Florida, exchanging the idiosyncratic cool of Teatro with the well-trod history of Criteria Studios. Lanois disliked the move, and the 2,800-mile relocation reoriented the working relationship between producer and artist. Dylan brought in new musicians, including Jim Dickinson, who had a musical training much more in line with the southern take on the blues Dylan had been seeking out in his persistent return to those older records. The tensions between Dylan and Lanois remain as much a part of the Time Out of Mind story as the songwriting and music, and Dickinson’s presence (as seen in John Lewis’s fascinating account, Whirly Gig) only seemed to divide the two men further. These pressures and anxieties helped frame the metanarrative of the finished album, even if listeners would be hard-pressed to hear them in the (digital) grooves. The eleven songs assembled for Time Out of Mind feel like such a coherent piece of music (yes, even with “Make You Feel My Love”) that the backstory clashes seem impossibly distant. Still, as Fragments illustrates, Dylan and Lanois crashed through several (sometimes radically) different iterations of these songs. A song like “Not Dark Yet,” so elemental to the sound of the record, for example, appears in one version on Fragments as an animated swing. It works better than one might initially think, but it lacks the gravitational pull of the released version.

This set allows for a glimpse into the choices made in the studio and afterward as the record came together. Regarding lyrics, Dylan continued tweaking and editing verses between takes, with some versions featuring fundamental reworkings. In some instances, some early songs were jettisoned with lyrics used in different compositions. These outtakes and alternative arrangements, then, In “Dreamin’ of You,” for example, one verse (the “live my life on the square” section) gets reimagined as “Standing in the Doorway.” Regarding tonal and sonic selections, the box collects alternative versions that offer untaken paths. For instance, an early version of “Love Sick” has Dylan drawing out a later excised lyric: “and the air is haaaazzzzy.” An early version of “Not Dark Yet,” has an entirely different upbeat vibe, with a rhythm that unfairly connects the song to Sade. I realize how weird that looks in print, but it can be hard to shake once you get her “By Your Side” in your mind. Scholars will have a field day with these iterations as they trace the vapor trails of one version to the next. The key example is “Mississippi,” which appears in five different studio forms and a live performance from 2001. Dylan ultimately scrapped the song for Time Out of Mind, revisiting it for the follow-up: “Love and Theft.” Each version is distinct in mood and direction: some swing, some drive, some lope, some drift. What’s curious is that Dylan’s singing differs widely in each iteration, but each time he sells it – each vocal performance is present and engaged, even if they offer radically different interpretations. The song clearly had its teeth in him, even if Lanois, as Brinkley notes in his essay, “didn’t think its lyrics were all that special.” Dylan knew what he had. This set offers many such insights and surprises.

A quarter-century later, the high level of songcraft and production stuns. A noted return to form in 1997, the album surpasses even the more significant praise given at the time. The songs come together beautifully, connected in theme, production, and performance. The opener, “Love Sick,” still sounds unlike anything else Dylan has ever pursued. Fragments augments this cut with two alternate takes, which offer shifts in lyrics and instrumentation. The spectral nature of the song is maintained across every version, the combination of haunted pedal steel guitar and a staccato organ continuing to unsettle. 1997? Maybe. 1957? Maybe. Dylan and Lanois had detuned the radio just enough to blur time and space, and “Love Sick” offers a sonic mission statement. Together, the first three tracks (“Love Sick,” “Dirt Road Blues,” and “Standing in the Doorway”) sketch out the meaning and vibe of the record: a record of walking, waiting, shadows, and ghosts. If there is an underrated song on a record filled with minor and major masterpieces, it would be “Standing in the Doorway,” which has aged exceptionally well. The alternate takes included show the musicians driving the song at a bit more of a gallop, but the blues narcotic of the released version sinks into the 3 a.m. mood as the band nears the end of a long gig. There’s still some gas in the tank, but the rhythm section has relaxed into a mellow groove that the band and dancers alike can ride for the rest of the night. The lyrics (at once straightforward and intricately layered) give tips of the hat to Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rogers, and Big Joe Turner by way of the Rolling Stones.

Two masterworks anchor the middle of the record: “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet,” as well as the live standard, “Cold Irons Bound.” This section of the album gives heft to the thematic core of the songs. Much of the gravitational pull of the record sinks in here, with the serious and reflective colliding with the existential and hilarious. The ease with which Dylan combines, juxtaposes, and blurs the dramatic with the comical gives the record its heft – the blues cut with jokes. Real jokes (you picked the wrong time to come) sometimes, glancing jokes elsewhere (I don’t know what “all right” even means), and often jokes that you know will turn sour in their retelling to the point that the storyteller begins to think, was this ever funny? But it was and is and will be again. In “Million Miles,” the narrator is always on the verge of telling a joke or a horror story. So much of Time Out of Mind rests on this enigmatic combination of heaviness and grace. The alternate takes on Fragments hint at the decision-making process (shifts in tones, tempos, and words) but also reinforce what makes the released versions work. The way Dylan draws out “gayyy Paree” in “Not Dark Yet,” for example, strikes such a beautiful balance of a light touch welded to the muted gloom of the rest of the song. These moments impel the listener to return to these songs as meanings shift, every relisten exposing some new truth.

And then there is “Make You Feel My Love.” Long a punching bag for critics, time has been kind to this ballad tucked into the back third of the album. Laura Tenschert has referred to the song “Dylan fans love to hate.”[4] The lyrics may not equal his most inspired work, but his voice is in fine form, and the melodies, particularly in the bridge, are solid. An argument could be made that criticism of this song (and to be fair, there seems to be a bit of growing revisionism here) stems mainly from the middle-of-the-road, lackluster cover versions that flourished in the decade or so since its release.[5] This final third of the record (“Make You Feel My Love,” “Can’t Wait,” and the incomparable “Highlands”) offers a conclusion, maybe, but at least a murmured recapitulation of everything that had come before. Of all the songs on the record, “Can’t Wait” has the most interesting shadow history, and Fragments presents wildly different takes on the song. Finally, as if that word could ever be used to describe this song, “Highlands” brings things to a climax and an ending. At 16 and a half minutes, “Highlands” wanders from stanza to stanza, scene to scene. One of his forever songs (see also: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Desolation Row,” or “Tangled Up in Blue”), “Highlands” could seemingly continue ad infinitum. The narrator could add new tales or different takes on old tales continually without tiring. This performance also provides a summary statement of every aspect of the record: the Charley Patton appropriation in the riff, the Robert Burns pilfer in the lyrics, the modern references crashing into ancient allusions, the darkness and light. The Boston diner scene – some of Dylan’s most remarkable writing matched with some of his most extraordinary singing – is as long as the entirety of “Love Sick,” but it never wears out its welcome. These seven verses could be repeated and rewritten in countless places, yet they always land the same way. “Every day,” Dylan sings, “is the same thing out the door.”

Since the 1980s, touring has given life to the songs. Dylan has repeatedly argued that the songs find their life on the stage. New arrangements come and go, new keys, and sometimes even new lyrics keep the songs fluid and vital. Several of these songs on Time Out of Mind became standards – “Cold Iron Bounds,” certainly – lifting concerts years after other songs drifted away. The producers of Fragments have included a disc of live cuts of every song on the record save “Dirt Road Blues,” which was never played live, spanning 1998 through 2001. The versions offered feature fantastic performances and illustrate how strong Dylan’s band was during this period. At first listen, several live cuts seem like audience tapes or rough soundboard recordings – existing just under the threshold of what would be expected technically from a set like this one. Still, the sound tends to craft its own mood, which works with the material. Immediacy trumps aural perfection, and Dylan’s voice conveys the material’s infinite, ricocheting meanings night after night. Together, these performances (especially the fiery 1998 version of “‘Til I Fell in Love With You” from Buenos Aires) underscore the strength of the bones of these compositions as much as demonstrate Dylan’s argument that the stage remains the true test.

Mostly rave reviews met the release of Time Out of Mind in the early autumn of 1997. The record engendered lots of “Dylan’s best since Oh Mercy” (or Infidels, or Blood on the Tracks, or…). A look at the release schedule of 1997 is instructive. A year dominated by Radiohead’s OK Computer and the early apex of electronic(a) records (The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and Spiritualized each released significant records that year) also saw several high- profile legacy acts. Paul McCartney, on the heels of the Beatles Anthology project, released Flaming Pie, garnering his best reviews in fifteen years. In addition, the same week as Time Out of Mind, the Rolling Stones released Bridges to Babylon. This record featured an updated sound courtesy of the Dust Brothers, the production team fresh off Beck’s Odelay. Thus, as Dylan pushed Lanois to consider Beck’s method and ended up with something not Beck-like at all, the Stones grabbed the same production team and ended up with something different and also not like Beck. These three records, however, illustrated the hard road facing “aging” musicians attempting to remain vital 35-plus years into their careers. This consideration of age defined the reception to the Rolling Stones, who had long dealt with “comebacks” and the “too old” wisecracks of critics. McCartney experienced less of this discussion, though he weathered constant comparisons to work decades earlier. Dylan encountered a bit of both. His reviews routinely raised his age (he turned 56 a few months before the record release) and debated how this new collection fit into his oeuvre (with almost uniformly positive acclaim). Then news of his battle with histoplasmosis pericarditis, something he suffered through after the recording sessions ended, gave plenty of critics a new way to frame the record: Dylan had just written (untrue) a masterpiece about his mortality (possibly true, though unconnected).

The news of Dylan’s heart ailment, a much more headline-grabbing idea than the (still very serious) inflammation of the sac around the heart, gave critics the framing necessary to recontextualize the record as a record of impending death and doom. His Buddy Holly comment at the Grammys, then, had added significance. “I just want to say that when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him,” Dylan noted, “and he looked at me.” “And I just have some sort of feeling,” Dylan continued, “that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.” Dylan clearly connected to Holly, who would have only been 61 at the time if he had lived. Still, instead of seeing that memory as a melancholic moment, it could very well serve as a memory of creative inspiration. Seeing Holly zapped Dylan back to the moment of becoming. Perhaps instead of a record of gloom, it was more a record of invention as he placed Holly front and center as a standard bearer of creativity rather than a hero gone too young. Still, death hung over the record in spirit and content, even if disconnected entirely from the specific moments conjured up by critics and reviewers. A key element of the conversation dealt obviously with the lyrics, but the production, too, gave heft to the claims of melancholy. Lanois’s shadowy production offered candlelight cast upon stone: no straight lines, each sound collapsing into the other. “It is a spooky record,” Dylan told David Gates in 1997, “because I feel spooky. I don’t feel in tune with anything.”[6]

The production is such an integral part of this record that it remains challenging to cleave the two apart: the songs from Lanois, Lanois from the songs. Dylan’s presence, of course, is central. If Lanois gets much of the credit (and maybe all of the discredit from those unhappy with the smudged fingerprint-laden tone), it bears repeating that Dylan established the impulse for the sonic continuity of the album. “But there is nothing contemporary about this record,” Dylan told Edna Gunderson. “We went back to the way a primitive record was made, before the advent of technology….And the whole record is live. That adds a certain ambience to everything.” One of the more provocative inclusions on Fragments is a remix of the entire record (without the original mix included). Remixed by Michael H. Brauer, who had worked on previous projects, including the fourth volume of the Bootleg Series (the 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall performance), the new mix is both subtle and radical. Less a Giles Martin revisionism (a restructuring of the record that deepens the sound while uncovering various aural oddities), Brauer’s remix repositions the instrumental commotion so central to the original record. With multiple pedal steels, guitars, organs, and drums populating most tracks, with much of it bleeding over into the vocal mic, everything crashes into each other. One of the joys of the Lanois mix is this clatter where multiple pedal steel guitars, itself an audacious choice, blur with the other guitars and keyboards. Fretted notes, buzzy reverb, whispered slides: each sound bending into the other and becoming a sound larger than itself. Brauer gives more focus to this roar and allows new ways of listening to particular songs within this reinvention. The producer has alluded to a directive from Dylan’s team to “simplify” the sound (and the production team’s decision to incorporate this new mix shows their commitment to the results). In the remix, each song becomes a detective story: was that organ always in the mix in “Dirt Road Blues”? Listening can become a bit of a thrill. Still, to my ear, nothing surpasses or eclipses the original Lanois production. The new songs have their own shine, but the original murky mix retains its rightful place.

The legacy boxset, a mainstay of artists’ catalogs for at least four decades, is no longer a given. The last couple of years have seen an uptick in conversation about the meaning, sustainability, and need for such pricey retrospectives. Dylan spearheaded the entire concept of these collections back with Biograph in 1985 and the first Bootleg Series six years later. Since then, Dylan and his team have put out fourteen volumes of unreleased material. Ultimately this latest volume is one of the most consistently listenable volumes of the entire bootleg series, working both as a historical document and a coherent record. It combines the strengths of the best previous sets: the inclusion of different sessions that don’t alienate the more casual listener. Volumes such as 2015’s The Cutting Edge, which focused on 1965-1966 sessions, and 2018’s More Blood, More Tracks, focusing on Blood on the Tracks, filled significant historical holes, even if repeated listens often required breaking sessions down into more selective playlists. Fragments, on the other hand, is through and through a stunning achievement that helps explain the origins of the record and provides unique perspectives to understanding the context of the original album. Still the question remains: is there a future for these types of boxsets? Dylan’s career certainly provides ample content: a box on Street Legal, say, the Dylan and the Dead tour, or some new configuration that refracts other fascinating aspects of his past. But is there an audience?

In 2020 and 2021, during the Covid lockdown in the United States, I returned to Time Out of Mind as balm, as a distractor. It seemed to hold a particular resonance, much like, say, REM’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, another record of movement and stasis, sonic blasts and meditative spaces. For reasons known and unknown, I obsessed over “Highlands,” with its luxuriating pulse and seemingly endless verses. A grand finale of sorts, the song pushes against the dark mortality of the rest of the album. It’s funnier, for one thing, as it careens across the various set pieces. But it also offers the crack that diffuses the darkness. The final lines of “Highlands,” and thus of the entire record, end in sunlight. A different sun for the narrator than before, to be sure, but he also has “new eyes”: a reminder, perhaps, that no matter how much anguish envelops Time Out of Mind, the record would not work without the light. The final lines of the record offer the unclenching fist, And that’s good enough for now. To its credit, Fragments only heightens the contrasts that define the album. Hearing these different takes only complements what makes Time Out of Mind work. Even the remix serves the songs. Historical revisionism in the greatest of ways, Fragments allows a deep dive into what makes the original record work while maintaining the ghostly integrity of the music at the heart of the project. And that’s good enough for now.


[1] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1997-dec-14-ca-63920-story.html

[2] Salt Lake Tribune, 10/19/1997.

[3] www.mojo4music.com/articles/stories/bob-dylan-what-do-you-think-of-this-kid-called-beck/

[4] “Initially dismissed by reviewers as a failure,” Tenschert writes, “it has since grown into a wildly successful pop hit. It’s the song that’s loved by the masses, but hated by Dylan purists.” https://www.definitelydylan.com/listen/2023/3/24/make-you-feel-my-love-the-marmite-of-bob-dylan-songs. See also: https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/dylans-to-make-you-feel-my love-why-so-much-dislike-for-it-on-the-forum.197992/page-3.

[5] Billy Joel’s version (on his third greatest hits compilation) predated Dylan’s release by one month. In his list of “Dylan’s Worst Songs,” critic Alfred Soto notes that “Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, Bryan Ferry are among the artists who have covered a plaint so generic that Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, and Bryan Ferry sing it exactly the same. https://humanizingthevacuum.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/can-you-understand-my-pain-dylans-worst-songs-2/.

[6] https://www.newsweek.com/dylan-revisited-174056.

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

REVIEW BY Robert Reginio, Alfred University


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Conor McPherson. Girl From the North Country. Directed by Conor McPherson, 12 Nov.
2021, Belasco Theatre, New York.

REVIEW BY James O’Brien


Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, is one of two Broadway productions since 2006 that prominently incorporate Bob Dylan’s songs. Critics have attributed both of these productions to the genre, or sub-genre, of jukebox musicals – featuring songs by artists predating the given show’s creation, typically recorded by known and famous musical artists – in these cases, Dylan.


The earlier of the two was Twyla Tharp’s production of The Times They Are a-Changin’, its story set in a circus and focusing on a father-son relationship. Opening in 2006, the musical closed on Broadway after twenty-eight performances and critical reception that questioned its reportedly literal staging of Dylan’s lyrics and music. While critical reception to Girl From the North Country has been significantly better than reviewers’ take on Tharp’s work, McPherson’s presentation of Dylan’s songs is challenging in its own way, and the production warrants attention in light of how it incorporates music and lyrics, and to how audiences experience new versions of known songs within a jukebox musical.


Girl From the North Country is set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born in 1941) in the winter of 1934, during the Great Depression. The house’s proprietor, Nick Laine, lives in and runs the place while caring for his wife, Elizabeth, who has dementia and is dependent on the town doctor for steadying narcotic doses. Laine strives to persuade his son, Gene, a would-be writer, to take work with the railroad and so help support the household. Meanwhile, Nick’s business partner and lover, Mrs. Neilsen, also lives in the house, and the two plan for the day her inheritance will allow them to escape together to another town. With them lives Marianne, whom Nick took in as a child, and who is now pregnant, but by whom it is not clear. Laine plans to marry Marianne off to Mr. Perry, an elderly cobbler in town.


These relationships occupy act one. Also entering the mix are a preacher, Mr. Marlowe, and his coincidental traveling companion Scott, a boxer just out of prison for a robbery he denies committing. They arrive on a stormy night. Fights ensue, and arguments include a sloppy punch-up between Gene and Scott. However, when Scott meets Marianne, they kindle a new and hopeful spark. Complicating the development, though, is the character of Mr. Burke, a washed-up businessman staying in the house with his bitter wife and their son, Elias, a grown man with a child’s mind. Burke recognizes Scott from watching him in the ring and pressures him to hire his services as a manager. Meanwhile, Marlowe, the preacher, suspects that Elias has killed a child, and he attempts to extort money from Mr. Burke to keep the information from the police.


These scenes play in the run-up to the night of the second act, the eve of Thanksgiving. It is a night of strife. Lodgers run out of credit, characters disclose old traumas, lose inheritances, plan escapes, attempt robberies, and Elias mysteriously drowns during a walk with his father near the river. As the dust settles, Nick gives his son Gene some money and suggests that he and Elizabeth will soon take their own lives to end their troubles.


Throughout these scenes, characters sing and perform parts of nineteen works from Bob Dylan’s catalog. Songs also play from an on-stage radio, or the actors play them on pianos and other instruments as part of the action story during a party or a moment alone in the house. The selections encompass albums Dylan released between 1963 and 2012, with nine of the nineteen drawn from records issued in the 1970s – New Morning, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Planet Waves, Street Legal, and Slow Train Coming.


When it comes to the jukebox musical, a framework under which audiences and critics can consider Girl From the North Country, the roots of the production approach rest in the 1970s and 1980s. Jukebox musicals achieved significant popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the production of Mamma Mia! (drawing on songs recorded by the group ABBA).


Before then – at least since the 1940s – musicals typically wove songs into the narrative, advancing the story and revealing new details of the characters, their motivations, and the plot. However, the jukebox musical positions the songs as a primary draw, especially in the cases of well-known songwriters and groups. In examples such as Mamma Mia!, there is an original story featuring the songs with a degree of narrative or thematic integration that does not explicitly reference the creators of the songs. In other cases, the jukebox musical presents a tribute to a genre or an era – such as Rock of Ages, focusing on rock music of the 1980s – and the concept of the genre or era is central to the audience’s experience. And then, sometimes, the focus is on the biography of a given musical artist, such as Lennon, and the action of the musical’s book presents the story of that artist’s life and often traces the creation of the songs performed. Still, other approaches blur the framework, and boundaries soften, as they do when genres and formats overlap. For example, there is something of the jukebox musical in Springsteen on Broadway, but in performance (and marketing), it was the artist in person, performing from a script and playing his own songs. Given time, formats tend to exceed tidy definitions.


Likewise, Girl From the North Country takes more than one approach from the jukebox musical’s book. For example, at the start of act one, when the ensemble forms a band and performs “Sign On The Window,” Dylan’s song serves primarily as diegetic music for the scene. It does not convey a narrative or give information about the characters or the setting, save perhaps setting a mood with the help of lyrics that speak of loneliness and crowded quarters. Similarly, when the company opens act two with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” – segueing somewhat unexpectedly into “Jokerman” – the performance is arguably thematically relevant but no more explicitly narrative than “Sign On The Window.” Shortly after the singing stops, the doctor dispenses narcotics, and the characters talk about infidelity, suicide, and addiction. While there is some relevance to be noticed in the lyrics of the immediately preceding performances – topics of stasis, the lure of comfort, or perhaps the nature of a “joker man” in one’s midst – the incorporation of Dylan’s lyrics is not specific or pertinent to the action on stage.


In other cases, the show gives Dylan’s songs in ways that suggest a more narratively linked approach. In the first act, Gene and his departing girlfriend Kate lament the end of their relationship. They sing parts of Dylan’s song “I Want You.” The song’s sentiment is in the right place, and the lyrics correlate with what the script has told us about these characters. We can even consider these lines in light of inner desires – the couple is parting, yet their longing for each other remains. Still, Girl From the North Country confounds neatly arrived at expectations. In the same scene, as Kate returns a necklace to Gene – a token of their relationship – the action is accompanied by kaleidoscopic lines: “The guilty undertaker sighs / The lonesome organ grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I should refuse you.”


The constructions and imagery of Dylan’s more freewheeling lyrics tilt toward being at odds with the actors in action, complicating the literal action with the introduction of undertakers and organ grinders and a chorus of silver saxophones. The performance and its forlorn delivery speak to the themes of Gene’s and Kate’s relationship. Still, it also uncouples those themes from the plainness – and plains-ness – of the setting and characters, the prosaic, penniless plaid and dungarees of a Minnesota heartbreak in 1934.


Another complication is that Dylan’s lyrics do not always sync with the given details of the characters and setting. For example, while it’s possible to correlate some of the lyrics of “Hurricane” with the character Scott, the fugitive boxer who sings part of it in the second act, the details of Rubin Carter’s plight provided in Dylan’s lyrics are significantly different from the story Scott tells in Girl From the North Country. As the song goes, its action is set “on a hot New Jersey night” decades later than Scott’s story; the action of “Hurricane” is a long way from winter in Minnesota, 1934. Anachronism is the case McPherson gives us. Approaching “Hurricane” in the context of Scott, the character, one way to frame these convergences of lyrics and script is to consider them as layers, as a way of situating and deepening Scott’s story. His is one of many similar tales; he isn’t the only Black person “in the joint serving somebody else’s stretch” (as he says in a line from the script). If so, the gain of layering “Hurricane” into Scott’s scene is to elevate the character from one time and place – an everyman of some sort – to one that spans times and places. Under this light, the mentioning of characters in the song Scott sings – Patty Valentine from the upper hall, a man named Bello, and so on – means that the role of this lyric, and perhaps a function of other instances throughout McPherson’s production, is to move the musical around mysteriously. Dylan’s songs comment in some way on the story, but obliquely and occasionally in a fashion that seems out of time with the action on the stage.


One factor at work within an audience that goes to see a musical such as Girl From the North Country is a desire to see and hear performances of the songs that Bob Dylan wrote. In that context, any jukebox musical performance markets to and attracts its attendees with the same dynamic. At the core of the experience is the lure of the cover version: new renditions and interpretations of the songs.


There are aspects to the experience of the cover song, whether performed for an audience or issued on a recording, that are often part of the audience’s expectations. Audiences and listeners commonly expect a cover song by an artist or group to present an interpretation of a well-known version of the work. A significant driver of the cover song’s reception lies in the differences – and the similarities – as apprehended in the context of the well-known version that the covering artist is referencing. Given an artist that changes his own recorded songs in sometimes radical ways, on record and in performance (though it would be problematic to refer to these variants as cover versions), much of Dylan’s audience is deeply familiar with the underlying concept of differences between versions and the pleasure or displeasure (or indifference) these introduced changes can elicit.


However, in the case of jukebox musicals, cover versions performed on stage often manifest differently. The performances can be diegetic, part of the story and not referencing, acknowledging, celebrating, or being explicitly bound to any knowledge of the songwriter or their catalog directly (while a cover song, by its nature, is almost always bound to its referent). Conversely, the cover versions in some jukebox musicals do present a celebration or an accounting of an artist’s music and career that explicitly references and acknowledges the songwriter of focus. There are also differences in how audiences can experience the cover versions of the songs that a jukebox musical incorporates. Chief among these are the cast albums released for listening without the context of the on-stage actors and sets. Each of these manifestations is significant in terms of the songs and their consideration as cover versions.


For example, in Girl From the North Country, the differences between the well-known versions of the songs in question and the versions performed on stage are almost always rooted in the diegesis. The characters sing the songs Dylan wrote in the context of the musical’s scripted setting and action. A dance. A lament for a lover. A flight of imagination or release. It is not clear that an audience watching the production receives these performances as cover versions in the traditional sense, as far as the root definition goes: a performance or recording that prioritizes attention to the differences and similarities from a well-known preceding work. Instead, for the audience in the theater, while a listener may note the differences between the way “I Want You” is performed on stage in Girl From the North Country and the version they’ve heard on Blonde on Blonde, within the context of the musical the differences in the arrangement are tied to character, plot and setting. This is an experience distinct from, say, listening to a recording of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” in which his electrified interpretation is considered against Dylan’s subdued performance on John Wesley Harding, which is the primary – and perhaps only – context at work.


That said, the experience of the cover version is different yet again when it comes to the cast recording of Girl From the North Country. The album released in 2021 does not include dialog or any other audible context for the songs. So, a listener who puts on the album with no knowledge of the characters, plot, or setting of the musical almost certainly approaches these recordings as cover versions free of diegesis. This would be an experience more like listening to Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.” What are the differences in play? What are the similarities? Pleasure, displeasure, or indifference. The same feelings may well arise for the spectator in the theater seat, but the whole of the experience is no longer coupled to the primary context of the cover version and the recorded artist’s interpretation; instead, the experience of the differences and similarities is couched in the on-stage action and story.


The cover version, then, and its pleasures (and risks) must be a term and an experience bound to the circumstances of its presentation. Girl From the North Country knows this, and the dynamic becomes especially evident during one of two concert-style performances of Dylan’s songs within the production. There is a moment when the character Elizabeth, played by Mare Winningham, sings “Like A Rolling Stone,” which starts as a spare, slow piano-based lamentation and then turns into something closer to the version first released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisited. About a minute and a half into the song, a band enters the arrangement, ramping up to a solo drumbeat, a sudden measure of silence, and then the performance reemerges as an upbeat gospel-rock version of the song buoyed by a chorus that would have sounded at home on Dylan’s 1979–80 gospel tour.


When Winningham performed the song on November 12, 2021, at Belasco Theatre in New York, she stood at the stage’s apron, bent at the knees, leaning into the music and Dylan’s lines. There was something familiar at work in even the blocking and choreography. If a member of the audience in 2021 had happened to see Dylan sing in years recently preceding, especially in the 2010s when he often performed without playing an instrument, letting the band take the parts, wielding only a microphone, occasionally dipping at the knees, then Winningham’s knee-bending, song-and-dance moves suggested a point of reference or tribute, or cover, there in the moment at the edge of the stage. Such tribute is also the work of a jukebox musical, and the closest Girl From the North Country comes, on stage to giving the cover version in its common context, a significant role to play.


Works Cited

Braun, Kimberly. Jukebox Musicals. Masters thesis, Gustavus Adolphus College, 2019, 1. Accessed

April 23, 2022. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6107&context=etd

Kennedy, Michael and Joyce. “cover (version).” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, edited by

Tim Rutherford-Johnson, Sixth ed., Oxford University Press, 2103, p. 192.

Raphael Falco. No One to Meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2022. xii + 260 pp.1

REVIEW BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University


A generation after the sack of Rome in August 410 CE, a Roman by the name of Macrobius, probably a Christian though his writings show no sign of that, wrote a dialogue set a generation before the sack. Entitled Saturnalia after the three-day pagan festival that opened on December 17, 382 or 383 CE – eventually morphing into Christmas – it is ostensibly a manual of sorts for the writer’s son, gathering writings from pagan literature that had formed the author’s education. For Macrobius that manual included first and foremost Virgil’s four-centuries-old Aeneid, a “sacred poem” for Christian writers though its author was a pagan.


In the fifth book of his dialogue Macrobius collects and juxtaposes what we would now call the Greek, mostly Homeric, intertexts of Virgil’s poem, the lines that critics had accused him of plagiarizing even in the poet’s lifetime – evoking the now well-known response from Virgil: “Why don’t my critics try the same thefts? They will soon realize it’s easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than steal a line from Homer.” In his preface Macrobius, without naming either of his sources, borrows from Seneca, who had quoted Virgil in saying “we ought to imitate the bees, who wander about and pluck from flowers then arrange what they have gathered and distribute it in the cells of the honeycomb and transform into a single taste the different types of nectar, through mixing in the individual quality of their own spirit.”


Virgil’s friend Horace, Rome’s greatest lyric poet, who himself draws from the Greek lyric poet Pindar, had compared himself in Odes 4.2 to the tiny bee who roves about the woods and riverbanks of Tivoli, fashioning his elaborate song. Nothing new under the sun – Ovid said that. Having in Why Bob Dylan Matters addressed the issue of Dylan’s borrowings or thefts from classical Greek and Roman poets, I was of course struck by Raphael Falco’s title, No One to Meet, and particularly the subtitle, Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan. So when a co-editor of the Dylan Review asked me to review the book I gladly accepted. Although I am on the Editorial Board, I have not met Professor Falco, who rightly recused himself from the process that now culminates in this review.


It is not easy for academics to write successfully on Dylan, many of whose fans and followers – not without reason when it comes to much academic writing in the humanities – would side with David Crosby’s take on Dylan’s fellow honorees on that Princeton stage during the locust infestation of 1970: “dickheads on autostroke.” I got my share of such sentiment from The Times on November 18, 2017 (“Is Bob Dylan inspired by classical poets? James Marriott yawns at nerdy analysis”) and the next day when The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan wrote under the headline “An academic’s attempt to shoehorn Dylan into the pantheon of literary greats misunderstands the singer’s appeal.” Dylan of course quotes Crosby in Chronicles, Volume One, and himself sang “The world of research has gone berserk / Too much paperwork” – and that was before the cascade of post-Nobel publications, podcasts and blog posts. And yet, he also gave a vivid and informative defense of precisely this intertextual aspect of his art in Rolling Stone, just two weeks after the release of Tempest in 2012, the album on which through the songs’ Homeric intertextuality he effectively “became Odysseus.” Interviewer Mikal Gilmore had left the trickiest question till the end: “I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers.” Among the colorful responses that diverted readers – “wussies and pussies complain about that stuff … all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell” – Dylan also gave us a glimpse of his understanding of his place in a long tradition:

It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back … I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritative figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can.


Falco, professor of Renaissance English literature, is one such figure. He announces the book’s purpose on page 25: “I analyze the growth and development of Dylan’s unparalleled lyrical authority through his practice of imitation, appropriation, and self-imitation.” Among the many things reborn in the Renaissance’s discovery and recreation of classical antiquity were theories of intertextuality: “mimesis,” to use the Greek term; for the Romans, “imitation” and its more competitive cousin “emulation.” It is notable that “influence,” though from a Latin word, did not exist in antiquity. No Greek or Roman would have been able to think or say “Homer influenced Virgil,” “Virgil influenced Dante,” “the Odyssey influenced Dylan.” Cicero used the verb in Laws 2.38, agreeing with Plato that “nothing so influences[2] impressionable young minds as the varied sounds of song, whose power for good and evil can scarcely be put into words.” Nothing new again – think of parental views of Elvis for the evil bit. The noun is from a neo-Latin coinage, mostly early-modern and astrological in essence, the “flowing in” of an element from certain alignments or positions of the stars, such as the supposed cause of ‘flu (or influenza).


What Virgil, Dante, and Dylan do with their respective traditions is a complete inversion of “influence,” and Falco begins his first chapter with Swedish Academy Professor Horace Engdahl’s words in his presentation speech of 2016: “all creativity begins in imitation.” In other words there is – more or less until the Romantics – no notion of “originality” in the sense critics of Dylan’s intertextual or transfigurative method of composing have in mind. “Originality” with the meaning “independent of and different from anything that has gone before” (OED 3a) is like “influence,” a late-comer to the English language. In college I knew an aspiring poet who refused to read other poets for fear of maiming his “originality.” I wonder what he is doing now – not writing poetry I would guess. Falco, whose mission is in part to introduce Renaissance theories and practice of imitatio to a broader audience, puts it this way in his introduction:

Imitatio is the means by which poets like Dylan manifest originality in the word’s literal sense, deriving from a source, or origo. But imitatio also allows poets to express originality – in the modern sense of creativity – through new combinations and revisions of past works. The poetic practice of imitation, which extends to the other arts, predates the Romantic perspective on originality and creative imagination.

In other words originality is not that in which the origin lies, but rather that which has an origin. This might feel like a semantic sleight of hand, but it is surely borne out by pre-Romantic realities, in antiquity and the Renaissance.


This approach allows Falco to demonstrate that originality lies in the transformation of the origins into a new creation. On page 6 he looks at the way Dylan, from early on, “recasts forms that are already familiar” – “Masters of War” out of “Nottamun Town,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Come” out of “Lord Randall,” and later “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” – melody, meter and all unmistakably coming out of “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night.” We hear the shared four first words, which announce the origin, and we hear the last four syllables of each, metrically and prosodically identical but semantically different in fundamental ways. That sets up a narrative that replaces the workingman’s anthem, whose vision and message urge us to go “on to organize,” with pure art and genius, particularly in the stunning final verse, where the singer played a central role in the death of the Christian martyr: “And I dreamed I was among the ones that put him out to death.”


Lest things seem to be getting too textual, it should be said that Falco, like many of us whose fields are rooted in writing and textuality but who follow the art of Bob Dylan, is fully aware that writing is only the beginning of Dylan’s art, and that its essence exists ultimately in the performance, the particular inflexions and meanings coming across only in each version. That is why in the concerts of recent years he can sing the same songs every night; they are not the same songs. Dylan himself warned on that score and directly corrected the Nobel Committee’s defensive claim that Dylan’s words could be read on the page: “They’re meant to be sung, not read.” Falco “would have liked to insert links to Dylan’s ‘delivery’ at every quotation” (p. 4) but is constrained by technological and legal realities. Yet his book is constantly aware that its subject is a performative artist, though one who does not exist without his words and his voice in song. On page 32 Falco aptly quotes Betsy Bowden’s assessment, as true to reality now as it was back when she offered it in 1982, “It was his voice that spoke so directly to and for each individual listener: Dylan’s whining, grating, snarling voice that could drip scorn or comfort, could stretch or snap off words to disregard their literal meaning or to fulfill it.”


At the end of the introduction, Falco sets out the themes of the four chapters. One of the strengths of the book is in the practical criticism, imbued with a deep knowledge of Dylan’s oeuvre that is, for the most part, integrated into his theoretical system, its presence lightly felt. We never lose sight of the fact that this is a book about the art of Bob Dylan. Space does not allow me to go into all of his observations and arguments, which tend not to be linear, but rather flit from topic to topic in an engaging way, and not unlike Horace’s bee.


Chapter 1, “Past the Vernacular,” demonstrates how Dylan’s imitation draws from his vast mnemonic capacity and creative genius to produce new art whose components are visible but unobtrusive. That is the sense in which the Renaissance understood imitatio – as did the ancient Greeks and Romans who created the foundation for those Renaissance theories one and two millennia earlier, long before the First Crusade.


Falco distinguishes Dylan’s imitation from the slavish type that comes across as having been copied, not from the artist’s having acquired the vernacular and then going past that vernacular. Here it might be useful to think of Eliot’s much-quoted “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Falco quotes Dylan speaking to Jonathan Cott in 1978: “I don’t try to imitate Rimbaud in my work. I’m not interested in imitation.” Here Dylan may merely mean, “I’ve lost interest in Rimbaud.” And keep in mind that in the 1974 song it was his “relationships” not his songs that had been “like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.” “Mr. Tambourine Man” certainly imitated an English translation of the French Symbolist’s “Le Bateau Ivre,” (perhaps Norman Cameron’s version) and I argued in 2017 that “Chimes of Freedom” likewise imitates Rimbaud’s “Poor People in Church.” But that imitation, as I argued, involved barely any use of actual words, and yet “Chimes of Freedom,” the work of an already mature poet, stole from the French poet. Dylan made it his own and in the process replaced the contempt of Rimbaud towards the “timid ones … the epileptic ones … the blind ones” with the empathy that is central to “Chimes” for “the searching ones … the aching ones … the countless confused, accused, misused ones.” That is how imitation worked in classical antiquity – and all the way through the Renaissance until the Romantics changed our way of thinking. Rimbaud had helped give us “Chimes of Freedom,” and Dylan soon moved on, saying within a couple of years, “I can’t read him now.” But Rimbaud’s specific poems remain visible, and important even if Dylan had moved on.


Here Falco might have given his readers some of the famous letter from Petrarch to Boccaccio, quoted by Kinney in his fundamental Continental Humanist Poetics, from which Falco rightly draws throughout. The letter was dated October 28, 1366:

A proper imitator should take care that what he writes resembles the original without reproducing it. The resemblance should not be that of a portrait to the sitter[3]– in that case the closer the likeness is the better – but it should be the resemblance of a son to his father … As soon as we see the son, he recalls the father to us, although if we should measure every feature, we should find them all different. But there is between them a certain shared element that indicates one is the impression of the other.[4]

The patrilineal metaphor may not please all, and it doesn’t quite fit the fact that the son in Petrarch’s letter plays no role in creating the imitation, but looking at it from the end result (the appearance of the son), it works well enough. We see Guthrie in the lyrics, melody, performance, and appearance of Dylan in 1962 and 1963, but the features are changed. We see Rimbaud in Dylan’s mid-60s song, but the features are changed. They are new creations.


Chapter 2 (“Savage Innocence: Dylan’s Art of Appropriation”) begins: “In the film The Savage Innocents, Anthony Quinn plays Inuk, an Eskimo hunter … Although no one seems to have cited this film as the source of the song, I have not seen an explanation anywhere as to why the ‘mighty’ Quinn should be an Eskimo.” In fact Oliver Trager on page 505 of Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia – a somewhat hubristic subtitle given the subject – includes a still from the movie, noting that “some Dylan scholars,” left unnamed, cite the film as a source for the song. I mention this not for any “gotcha” purpose, but first of all because it points to a central problem in Dylanology, something of a Wild West in which it is not always easy to find the origins of ideas, and in which many of us have found our own ideas reappearing without acknowledgement. This is in the nature of the field, and it is to be expected that as Dylan continues to be the subject of academic study, things might change. Although it is also the case in the academic world that bibliographic scruples are on the wane.


Falco is a model of how the scholarly face of Dylanology might look. He is scrupulous with his scholarship, with 204 items in his bibliography all to be found in text and notes, fully acknowledging those to whom he is indebted, myself included on the classical material; Andrew Muir on Shakespeare; Scobie, Ricks, Hampton on their particular subjects. And he is balanced and generous in his treatment of others, a welcome feature compared to some writers who seem to feel an exclusive ownership of the art and especially the life of Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin, to return to The Savage Innocents, makes no mention of the film in Revolution in the Air, nor does Michael Gray’s Dylan encyclopedia, so Falco’s oversight is natural. Be that as it may, Falco’s argument for the connection is generally convincing, and a good path into the chapter’s continuing exploration of what he means by “originality,” which also involves the degree to which the source is easily recognized or known. When Dylan sang the opening words of “Hard Rain,” many or all in the coffee house folk communities would have immediately heard the opening, “O where have you been, Lord Randall, my son.” They would have recognized the father even as they were thunderstruck by the blue-eyed son who was about to open a universe the father had never contemplated. Hearing the old song in the words and melody of the new song is a vital part of the experience, as Petrarch wrote. Likewise, though now coming back to Earth, my appreciation of “Quinn the Eskimo” is increased by the thought that “It ain’t my cup of meat” could find its origin in the bowl of maggot-infested meat that figures in the film.


But Falco’s reading of the song also got me thinking about the double title, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” in the lyrics book and on bobdylan.com. Inuk is mighty enough, but what if Dylan had more than one Anthony Quinn in mind? In the magnificent second chapter of Chronicles, “The Lost Land,” Dylan writes of going to “an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street … I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there – one called La Strada, which means ‘The Street.’” It is hard to imagine Dylan not being absorbed by the figure of Zampanò, the itinerant character played by Quinn for whom Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, as the waif Gelsomina, collects offerings as he breaks a chain with only the strength of his chest expansion! Though not so mighty in reality, he certainly comes across as the mighty Quinn to the simple Italians who pay good money to see the act. A bit like the carnival figure Dylan recalls seeing when the circus is in town at Hibbing’s National Guard Armory, as Dylan himself put it: “Gorgeous George. A mighty spirit” (Chronicles, Volume 1, p. 44). He returns to the theme on page 187, now in New Orleans, at the end of the 1980s, when he tells of going to see “The Mighty Quinn,” “a mystery, suspense, Jamaican thriller with Denzel Washington as the mighty Xavier Quinn, a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that’s just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song ‘The Mighty Quinn.’ Denzel Washington.” Sure, Bob, whatever you say, but Zampanò as the Mighty Quinn has my vote.


In a learned section (“Meet Me in the Margin”), Falco goes on to explore the presence of appropriation and how, or whether, it affects our hearing of the song. The answer depends in part on the level of erudition of both Dylan and the listener. Falco is right to distinguish Dylan’s complexity of intertextuality from the polysemous layering of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Dante’s Inferno, works that come late in their respective traditions. And yet, Dylan’s mnemonic range equals these two when it comes to his absorbing folk and other traditions that have unfairly been considered of a lower register, but which would have been heard by the Gaslight Cafe audiences. He picks up the more recent examples of Dylan’s imitatio of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. With apologies for immodesty I bring up his treatment of my listening in this context:

It would be misleading to say that Richard Thomas, a classical scholar, hears Virgil where we hear Dylan (as at least one reviewer observed). Not only does this do Thomas a disservice, but, more significantly, such statements do a disservice to all forms of erudition. Thomas hears Dylan and hears Virgil in Dylan: he chooses to write about Virgil or Ovid because he has expertise in this while most of the rest of us don’t. His writing about Virgil does not obfuscate what the rest of us hear when we listen to Dylan. The function of erudition is not to suppress the text or supplant it but to enhance and augment it.

This is a point worth stressing. I first heard Virgil in Dylan in the second-to-last verse of “Lonesome Day Blues” in mid-September 2001, a few days after 9/11. I bought the album in Tower Records in Cambridge, MA, an hour after the second tower was hit, the irony occurring to me as I did so. I had been listening to Dylan for over thirty years, studying and teaching Virgil for a little less. Hearing Virgil in Dylan was an indescribable feeling, not equaled in its immediacy by hearing Ovid in the songs on Modern Times.[5] A close runner-up was hearing Odysseus taunting the Cyclops in the penultimate verse of “Early Roman Kings.”


And so it continues. When I heard “stand over there by the cypress tree, where the Trojan women and children are being sold into slavery,” I knew the words from “My Own Version of You” could only come some 1,100 years before the First Crusade, from 19 BCE and the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Others soon decided they had heard the same. Some no doubt went and read the great poem that gives us the gripping narrative of the fall of Troy, Trojan Aeneas’ survivor song, sung in the court of Dido, Queen of Carthage. You don’t need to hear these instances of imitatio precisely along the lines that Falco sets out. You don’t need to hear Homer as you read Virgil, but if you try sometime you just might find you get something out of it all. And if it disrupts your firmly established view of what matters to Dylan, and therefore reject the possibility as academic humbug, that’s your problem. And this happens in performance. I was in Austin on March 16, 2022, the week Dylan started singing the new sixth verse of “Crossing the Rubicon” to which Bob Britt’s guitar flurries draw particular attention, like the Sanctus bells in the Catholic church alerting those in attendance to what comes next:

Right or wrong what can I say? What really needs to be said?
I’ll spill your brains out on the ground. You’ll be better off over there with the dead
Seems like 10 maybe 20 years I’ve been gone
I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.


Line 1 is the voice of Helen, in Book 4 of the Odyssey, line 2 that of the Cyclops imagining what he will do to Odysseus (“I’d smash him against the ground, I’d spill his brains”) and line 3 that of Odysseus, wandering for all those years. Dylan apparently wanted his familiar Homeric hero to come back into play. You can decide you don’t want to hear Homer, though why you would want not to I wouldn’t know. But you can’t say only I am hearing these specific translations of Fagles’ Odyssey when it is quite clear what Dylan – for whatever reason, a different question – is doing, namely inserting the Homeric lines into a transformed version of “Crossing the Rubicon.”


The third chapter (“Self-Portrait in a Broken Glass: Dylan Imitates Dylan”) turns to what some of us call intratextuality, the ways in which the artist’s own earlier work becomes part of the word hoard, a process whereby the artist “has mined his or her own body of work for as much material to reintroduce, adapt, and weave into songs” (p. 25). I suggested (Thomas 2017:180–187) that the Boston restaurant scene in “Highlands” was such an instance, alluding back to that momentous occasion in the topless place or one of its variants in “Tangled Up in Blue” and updating via the reality of the second-wave feminist waitress whom the singer, wishing someone would come and “push back the clock for him,” now fails to pick up. Skeptics will find unimportant the fact that in his first two performances of “Highlands” he sang it right after the 1975 classic. But if you allow yourself to hear the intratext – and now that I have mentioned it, you will not fail to make the connection – the performative pairing has a transcendent effect.


Falco rightly claims that no major artist in the twentieth century is as self-referential as Dylan. But if you go back, by way of Shakespeare, again to before the First Crusade, you will find a model for this in Virgil. In the Golden Age to which the fourth Messianic eclogue (c. 39 BCE) finds an escape, inside the gates of Eden, “every land will produce everything” (omnis feret omnia tellus). In Virgil’s great next poem, Georgics (29 BCE), which confronts the hard reality in the world of the Iron Age, that earlier Utopian fiction is exploded: “in truth all lands cannot produce everything” (nec vero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt). In these two examples Dylan and Virgil are doing pretty much the same thing, allowing an earlier song or poem to come into play through intratextuality, if only we have ears to hear.


In reality, much of this third chapter is more focused on the relationship between textual and pictorial, between lyrics and drawing, painting and photography. Falco offers a wide-ranging exploration of the relationship between the two in Writings and Drawings and the ways the images relate to the facing lyrics. He connects these to the worlds of Mondo Scripto, and provides an interesting discussion of the multiple images of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – graphic translations of self-imitation. He briefly treats five of the sixteen images that illuminate the song in the catalog with different implements (garden rake, baseball bat, iron bar, jackhammer, large crucifix), all being used in fruitless knockings on three different types of doors.


He might also have noted that page 317 in the Mondo Scripto catalog has sixteen images, arranged four per line, thus producing a perfectly iconic image of the song’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. There are ten images of a man knocking on a variety of doors, eight of them taking up the second and fourth lines (choruses), the other two at the end of the first and second verses. The entirety of the song’s lyrics, in case we don’t know them, are written across the sixteen images, allowing simultaneous viewing, reading, and singing of the song. Just when you thought there was nothing much to say about that old favorite, Dylan shows you a new way in. And as Horace said, ut pictura poesis, “poetry is like painting.”


Returning to this page of Mondo Scripto got me thinking about the other six lines of the song, especially the first two: “Mama, take this badge off of me” and “I can’t use it anymore.” We see the same badge in each image, first upright with nothing else in the frame, then lying abandoned on a city street, with only our imagination about how it got there. You don’t have to look too closely to see the words “Maricopa County, Ariz.” You might then be entitled to think of that county’s sheriff, Joe Arpaio, criticized by Amnesty International and the Anti-Defamation League, sued by the ACLU for racial profiling, convicted of criminal contempt of court in July 2017, and pardoned by Donald Trump the next month while Dylan was producing Mondo Scripto. By then Arpaio couldn’t use the badge anymore, having been defeated by Democrat Paul Penzone in the same general election that brought Trump in. To all of this Dylan might reply, “Look again, that’s a Deputy Sheriff badge. Arpaio was Sheriff; he’s not there.”


In the section “Stuck Inside a Painting,” Falco gets to song intratextuality, starting out with Stephen Scobie’s brilliant treatment of the way “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” from 1983 (“But it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting / That’s hanging in the Louvre”) involves itself in the great “Visions of Johanna” with the Louvre’s most famous piece of art (“Inside the museums … Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues”). Falco then connects the “jelly-faced women” who all sneeze in the same verse of “Visions” – a crucial question: are they old, or just obese (“can’t find my knees”)? – to Dylan’s drunken put down of his elderly audience at the infamous Tom Paine Awards: “old people when their hair grows out, they should go out.” That then leads Falco to “My Back Pages,” not only its chorus (“I was so much older then”), but to the opening two lines: “Crimson flames tied through my ears / Rollin’ high and mighty traps”, and the comment that “The ‘crimson flames’ presumably represent the fiery left-wing rhetoric that engulfed Dylan in his ‘finger-pointing’ period.” The strategic adverb [my italics] contains multitudes. It is dangerous to presume too much about the surreal imagery of a song like “My Back Pages” even if we might all agree and hold as a presumption that one of its meanings has to do with the singer no longer relying on the old songwriting that appealed to the older folk aficionados of his first two Newport appearances.


This leads to a central aspect of criticism that involves itself in intertextual or intratextual claims and arguments. I have always thought having a bare majority of readers – though ideally three quarters – consent to your observations and arguments was a prerequisite to successful criticism, not that you can ever know. Falco always has interesting things to say, but in these pages I found myself reluctant to go along, starting with my failure to accept his assertion that “jelly-faced women” meant “old women,” a necessary link in his Tom Paine chain. On page 126 he observes “in terms of self-reference, being ‘stuck inside a painting’ and being ‘stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues’ are comparable.” That seems plausible. Whether that leads to the conclusion that “both songs indict art – painting and the blues – as the agents of physical limitations,” or that with the title “Stuck Inside of Mobile” there is an “ironic pun in that it refers to someone immobilized,” is another matter. The same may be said of a somewhat tendentious next step on page 128. The necessary body parts are telegraphed at the start of the section: “Dylan’s speaker in ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight’ is in effect ‘calling out that he’s been framed.’” He’s doing no such thing, but this allows Falco to bring in the line from “I Shall Be Released” and close the circle. “That he’s been framed” allows a connection that will again fall far short, I suspect, of that 50 percent threshold.


It continues. The last verse of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” proposes to the woman “getting beneath the surface waste.” “No more booby traps and bombs / No more decadence and charm / No more affection that’s misplaced, girl.” So far so good. But then, “No more mudcake creatures lying in your arms.” My reaction at this point would be “I don’t know what it means, either, but it sounds good,” as Dylan said of that couplet of John Donne in the Nobel Lecture (though I do know what that one means). But Falco is all in: the image “mudcake creatures” “refers to Genesis 2:5-7, where God forms man from the dust of the ground” (King James and New Revised Standard). If you wonder how that works, on the next page we have the answer, that the speaker “renounces mudcake formation and affirms his vow to lie in the girl’s arms, not any more as a mere creature of the clay but as a man newly connected (or converted) to the deity.” Falco is enjoying himself, and there is nothing wrong with that, particularly if that is really what the lines mean to him. But wouldn’t Dylan have written “no more mudcake creature” at the very least if he meant his own transformation exclusively? And for me there is no Genesis imitatio at work here. I’m just not on board. Terry Gans seems the wiser (Surviving in a Ruthless World 72, n. 95): “One of the seemingly inexplicable phrases is ‘mudcake creatures.’ It could refer to a driller, a baker or a sexual practice. Or it could just be three words put together. Your guess is as good as any.” But if you take on such a line, you have to persuade readers that your guess is better than any.


The problem with asserting a single, strong meaning in an argument with many links in the chain is that it then has to fit into the song’s, or at least the verse’s, larger meaning; and the very next line should advise caution: “What about that millionaire with the drumsticks in his pants?” For Falco this too has to be made to fit into a biblical reading of a song that to many seems at home with the unbelieving title of the album (Infidels): “Maybe the millionaire’s bewilderment is brought on by the rejection of his earthy rhythm once the mudcake creatures are no more – once they are saved as Christ’s successors with the promise of spiritual generation.” If the reader has not bought into the born-again reading of the mudcake creatures, the entirety of the chapter’s last seven pages of analysis of a song Dylan never performed will be in vain. I hasten to add that while not going along with the interpretive aspects, I enjoyed these pages, and particularly enjoyed Falco the Renaissance man displaying his scholarly expertise and familiarity with the biblical material as literature – a familiarity lacking in more recent students of literature. In that connection one of the profound aspects of Dylan’s lyrical genius across the decades is his literary engagement with the Bible, quite apart from his own faith practice of any decade.


Chapter 4 (“The Wizard’s Curse: The American Singer as Vates”) promises to be “both a culmination and an expansion, closing the circle on my argument that Dylan’s status as a vatic poet is unique in contemporary culture.” This chapter will be the most demanding for many readers, but it is also in many ways the most successful in its dazzling and generally persuasive connections across the years. Vates, as Falco explains, is Latin for “bard” and “prophet” – a word that suggested old-fashioned poets to the young, avant-garde Virgil and Horace, but which became rehabilitated as they used it of themselves in their higher-register moments when asserting their own status as voice of their generation, in the tumultuous world in which they lived. That is, as they were assuming the classical status they would come to hold – as Dylan has been doing in recent years.


The word vates is probably a loan word, passing into Latin from the Celtic Gaulish, and as such was cognate with Old Norse Ōdin, Old English Wōdan, Old High German Wuotan, the Irish and Welsh terms for “bard” and other terms meaning “leader of the possessed,” “king of frenzy” – none of them false prophets. Falco brilliantly connects such figures to Dylan’s voice in the opening of “False Prophet”: “another ship going out,” going back almost 60 years to the song Dylan sang at the March on Washington, “the hour that the ship comes in.” And he connects the theme to much else, not least the Book of Daniel and the biblical prophets, as he ranges across Dylan’s oeuvre pursuing this topic.


Among the most impressive sections of this chapter is “Visionary Technology,” the treatment of Dylan’s “aesthetic technology,” a “literary phenomenon born of imitation.” Falco develops Timothy Hampton’s work on Dylan’s use of Rimbaud as he returns to later manifestations of that topic, including the Rimbaud collage in the famous “Series of Dreams” video. Though recently remastered and stripped of its highly intertextual images, this video once included a “flash of the famous Rimbaud portrait, whose edges suddenly melt and reform” – a corroboration of Dylan’s disavowal of the French poet’s importance in the years following his patent interest. We don’t know who made that video, whose opening frames have Horace’s line from his closing ode, non omnis moriar, “not all of me will die.” I like to think Dylan somehow found the great Roman poet’s prediction that his poetry would outlast the pyramids. But perhaps, as Milton put it, I fondly dream, and it was just some Classics nerd production assistant.


Falco goes on to open up the whole catalog of Dylan’s songbook as he offers a collective vision of songs that might have seemed unconnected without his persuasive writing:

While “Hard Rain” demonstrates an extraordinary command of vatic expression very early on, Dylan’s later songs from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Dirge” to “I and I” to “Mississippi,” “High Water,” “Not Dark Yet,” and “Highlands” exhibit an ongoing and profound commitment to that same mode of writing and performance. Even the knotty, cryptic, accusing verses of such experimental standards as “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” while eschewing the anthemic voice of the pabulum years, resonate with visionary challenges.

Even the cover of “Arthur McBride,” “Percy’s Song,” and especially “Abandoned Love” come into focus for him. Νο one who has heard Dylan’s Bitter End version of “Abandoned Love” will soon forget that delivery, particularly the final verse with St. John the Evangelist making an appearance, which Falco connects back to the prophetic voices of “Hard Rain,” “Gates of Eden,” “Percy’s Song,” among many others. And it may be useful to think about “Abandoned Love” in terms of those other prophetic songs, particularly on that night, when the singer sends out for St. John. But things get a little out of hand: “About ‘to make a change,’ he calls for Saint John the Evangelist, author of Revelation, apparently for a viaticum” [the final Eucharist administered to a dying person]. Falco would not be the first person to mix up John the Evangelist or Apostle, “the one whom Jesus loved,” with the Revelator of the same common name. Apart from this, it is hard not to hear the delighted laughter of the Bitter End crowd when Dylan got to the end of the verse. It may be time to make a change, but how serious at that point? “But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange.”


Although there is much insight in this final 55-page chapter, as a whole it meanders a little, losing sight of Renaissance “imitatio as originality” that is Falco’s overall theme and the heart of the book. Moreover, it could have profited from some editorial tightening. The word “vatic,” unfamiliar to many but well explained by Falco, occurs 135 times in the chapter, eleven times on page 182: vatic authority (thrice), vatic voice (thrice), vatic imagery, technique, gifts, innovations, song. The very word becomes a distraction. It is unfortunate that this stylistic excess will keep some readers from staying engaged.


More engaging are four pages on “Blind Willie McTell,” wherein Falco examines an important observation by David Yaffe (2011) about this song’s place in what Yaffe calls Dylan’s lifelong “reckoning with [B]lackness.” Yaffe wrote “‘nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,’ [Dylan] sang, but nobody sang about not being able to sing those blues like Dylan, which in turn made for compelling blues in its own way.” Falco’s particular expansion of this comes through his own expertise in the area of Renaissance literature. Here as elsewhere, he brings in Arthur Kinney’s valuable introductory chapter to his 1989 book Continental Humanist Poetics, which points to the need for “the audience [to] see the residual traces of the original, which has been the initial impulse or model.” Yaffe and Falco together provide an important way into thinking – by way of the images and sounds of “Blind Willie McTell” – about how Dylan comes to terms with the white appropriation of Black blues traditions. They reveal the daring of the song’s project, but also reveal just how successful this particular transfiguration was. Of the many greatest hits that Dylan left off albums, none is a greater song than this. Perhaps Dylan was as yet uncertain how its purpose in connection to this larger social and cultural question might be received.


Next comes a ten-page section (“You Need the Blood on Your Door”) that picks up on the reference to the mezuzah in the opening line of “Blind Willie McTell”: “Seen the arrow on the doorpost.” Falco develops the notion that the symbol of the arrow, suggesting a “sense of hope, of liberation from slavery, of a future guaranteed by covenant,” puts Moses and the prophetic or vatic Mosaic in play, connecting the Egyptian enslavement of the Jews and that of Black people in the American South for whom Moses became so central in word, song, and soul. Here Falco focuses on the gospel period of 1979–80, ranging impressively through the songs and the often lengthy homiletic preambles to which Dylan treated his audiences across those remarkable months. By now we have become accustomed to Falco’s voice: “Yet Dylan never abandons the Mosaic voice as a viable vatic alternative.” Putting these verbal ticks aside, readers will find Falco impressive in recovering from the voices of those who were in attendance, and especially from the evidence now available on Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 1979-1981, just how dynamic these performances were. Drawing from Gayle Wald’s warning that “approaches that focus on the written text overlook the performativity of gospel,” he well notes that release of the performances is a “reminder of how daring Dylan can be in refiguring lyrical and musical forms in performance as well as on the page. His sense of transformative imitation buoys the performances on the live album. We can hear a deep investment of heart in his voice, an earnestness unleavened by Dylan’s usual sense of amusement – except for “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” perhaps.”


One might note though that the song-changing aposiopesis at the end of the last verse of that song “Saw him disappear by a tree near the lake …” leaves you to supply the final item which takes you back from Old MacDonald’s farm animals – (bear), cow, bull, pig, sheep – to Eden and the “fruit of that forbidden tree” – not so funny after all.


In usefully pondering the imponderable questions of where and how Dylan absorbed the New Testament images and resonances, and particularly how much might have come from Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-selling born-again manifesto The Late Great Planet Earth, Falco on page 177 prints an image from the Tulsa Archive. Figure 7 is said to be from “Notes, writings, and unfinished lyrics from Shot of Love, c 1981.” As Falco writes, “[Dylan] even prepared an alphabetical concordance of New Testament verses corresponding to an idiosyncratic list of virtues, vices, emotions, and character traits.” One might question the archival dating for such a crib sheet, for which 1981 seems a little late. And yet by then such a list may show not so much conscientiousness about “doing his Christian Bible school homework” – which primarily took place in early 1979 – as constituting a concordance of themes and corresponding New Testament passages for use in his songwriting.


More than 20 of the crib sheet’s 100 references come from that too complex Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and they constitute rules for Christians to live by, with some hard items. The biographers will be interested that Matthew 15.4 (Jesus quoting the Ten Commandments “God said ‘Honor your father and your mother’”) appears twice, under “Honor of Parents” and “Mother,” but not under “Father” for which there is no entry. And as for “Adultery” there is some understandable cherry-picking: Matthew 5.28 (along with 27 and 32), which is heavy enough: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” But the sequel is not included: 29 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”


After exploring the connection of this document with the gospel period, Falco concludes this long, varied, and comprehensive chapter first with a short section on the great Time Out of Mind outtake, “Red River Shore.” Or rather, he homes in on the striking conclusion in its eighth and final verse where the singer seems to be turning again to Jesus and the proto-resurrection story of Lazarus:

Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring him on back to life.

Whether the singer wants this “guy” to bring him back into the real world from that which only existed for him and the girl from the Red River Shore, or to bring her back into the world of his present day in which she seems to be dead, is not clear. This is a subtle form of imitatio, in which the language, “heard of a guy,” and the place in time (“don’t know … if they do that kind of thing anymore”) distance themselves from any biblical textuality but in which Dylan’s “imitation, digestion, and transformative reproduction of these influences, combined with his own readings – or strong misreadings – of biblical language, provide the weave and weft of his vatic technique.” This seems to me a valuable insight, and one that could be applied to the songs, and the mode of imitatio, of Rough and Rowdy Ways whose intertextuality I have argued returns to a less specifically textual practice than the specificity of the Saga-Virgil-Timrod-Ovid-Odyssey borrowings of 2001, 2006, and 2012.


The final section of the chapter “Shipwrecks Everywhere” focuses on “Tempest,” the titular song on the 2012 album. Falco usefully gathers together the various Titanic song strands, from the Carter Family’s version from which Dylan borrows melody, the watchman and the captain – transforming all to his new purpose – to Prospero and Ariel and the Shakespearean shipwreck that never happened. Falco doubts the sincerity of Dylan’s response to Mikal Gilmore that the song is not to be taken as a judgment on modern times: “No, no, I try to stay away from all that stuff. I don’t imply any of it. I’m not interested in it. I’m just interested in showing you what happened.” Dylan in fact seems quite true to the song here. They all went down, “the good, the bad, the rich, the poor / the loveliest and the best.” And “there is no understanding / On the judgment of God’s hand.” That while drafting the song Dylan wrote “G-d,” as he does throughout the song drafts, can hardly be invoked to support the thesis that for Dylan the ship went down “as the result of a Yahwistic judgment.” I agree with Falco, and against many readers, that the song is magnificent, its melodic monotony contributing to the build-up and conveying the enormity of that day. In that respect it anticipates “Murder Most Foul,” the next epic closer. But the vatic voice seems less audible in “Tempest,” except perhaps in the nobility of the Captain, never mentioned by Falco, redeemed from the insinuation in the Carter Family version (“Cap’n Smith must have been drinking”), who in the Dylan version recalls bygone years as the water rises, reads the Book of Revelation, and fills his cup with tears.


An appendix on “Renaldo and Clara” develops Sam Shepard’s observation of the whole Rolling Thunder enterprise, including the film: “Dylan has invented himself. He’s made himself up from scratch … Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in.” The film shows Dylan in the process of creating his own self-imitation, one reason why it is still worth viewing it, difficult as that can be.


Dylanologists and hard-core fans will find fault with some details, particularly from the 1960s, where Falco is at times puzzlingly inaccurate on details that could be easily checked. On p. 22 Dylan’s famous, and revealing, words from October 31, 1964 at Philharmonic Hall in New York City (“I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading”) are said to be uttered “at Town Hall in 1962.” And on p. 125 the even more famous “Judas! moment” of May 17, 1966 was a little more than “a year away” from release of “My Back Pages” on August 8, 1964. But for most these will be minor distractions. The book ends with a twenty-page discography; it is hard to know why one would consult that rather than the outstanding Wikipedia Bob Dylan discography, which has a great deal more information. The index on the other hand is well done and intelligently compiled.


This has been a rather discursive review. The attractive discursiveness of No One to Meet is in part responsible, but so is Dylan. Falco takes the reader across the ever-changing terrain of the greatest and most prolific songwriter, in many ways the greatest artist, of our time. His theme is vast, how a great artist practices imitation, a phenomenon that is wholly positive once liberated from the prejudices of Romanticism, and understood in the terms developed from classical antiquity by the Renaissance as that form of originality that has an origin, is in a tradition. Falco’s book deserves to be read with attention and deserves to take its place among works, past and future, that put Dylan’s art in the context of the larger history of creative genius in all its ragin’ glory.


[1] Dylan Review Founding Editor, Raphael Falco, author of the book in question, recused himself from any involvement in the procuring and editing of this review. Special thanks to Shelby Nathanson for keen editorial assistance.

[2] literally “flows into” influere (my translation)

[3] Read: “photograph.”

[4] Last sentence my translation of the Italian.

[5] After Cliff Fell, then the rest of us, had heard Dylan as he was reading Peter Green’s Ovid.


Freddy Cristobal Dominguez, Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian. Amherst
and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2022. 192 pp.

REVIEW BY Scott F. Parker, Montana State University


In his conclusion to Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian, Freddy Cristobal Dominguez asks a question that is central to his project: “If – and this is not accepted by all – we ‘traditional’ historians are the makers and perpetuators of myths, if we are, as one recent book puts it, ‘story-tellers, custodians of the past, repositories of collective memory, poetic interpreters of what it is to be human,’ why are Dylan’s songs rendered purely musical or sometimes poetic while the writerly, often stodgy, words of ‘proper’ historians claim legitimacy and superior import?” (137–138). It’s an important question, and one that Dominguez already knows the answer to: they shouldn’t be.


Bob Dylan in the Attic establishes Dylan’s bona fides as a historian, leaving its author in something of an awkward position. In ceding historiography to non-professionals, what does the professional leave for himself?


Dominguez begins the book by announcing his “noncultic relationship to [Dylan]” (ix). Dominguez approaches his subject, he assures the reader, as a scholar not as a fan. And yet, the fan in him will not stay in his place. While Dominguez recognizes the virtue of an academic’s critical distance, he admits (in his acknowledgments) that “There were times when I doubted that Bob Dylan in the Attic would ever be finished, or worse, when I was taking things too seriously and killing the fun” (xi). Intellectual humility is mandatory among Dylan scholars, fans, and disciples alike, who must always compare themselves to the truly devout – the kind of person who can rattle off every setlist of the Never Ending Tour – but there should be no need to apologize for fun or for fandom, no need to offer an “excuse for [a] book” (4). We devote ourselves (in whatever senses) to what we love, and Dominguez loves Dylan – enough to own all of his albums and many of his bootlegs, enough to have seen him in concert nine times on two continents, enough to have spent years writing a book about him. And yet, come the conclusion, he is still feeling the need to “confess” to being among Dylan’s admirers (135). He is writing, he reminds his readers, as a “professional historian,” which if it weren’t clear from the substance of the book would be abundantly clear from Dominguez’s irrepressible habits of qualifying his statements and introducing meticulous distinctions (see “scholar-fans” and “fan-scholars,” (136)). The instincts of an academic are everywhere in the Attic.


This in itself is no knock against Dominguez. It is understandable, even admirable, that a scholar would advance cautiously and make claims tentatively. In the punctilious world of scholarship, where any statement may come under scrutiny, it is better to be sober than impassioned, better to be not wrong than recklessly provocative, better for a position to be defensible than memorable. But as responsible as this kind of writing is, it must confront the fact that we pick up Bob Dylan in the Attic as we pick up any book – not to download its information but to read it.


And I hope we are (reading the book). Dominguez’s treatment of Dylan as historian is fascinating stuff to people who read journals like the Dylan Review. And beginning with the second chapter, Dominguez gets out of his own way and starts hitting his stride. He knows it takes him this long, too. The messy first chapter concludes with Dominguez saying ‘sorry-not-sorry’ for what has preceded: “I hope that the reader has arrived at this resting spot somewhat disoriented, perhaps a little dissatisfied, or, better yet, wanting more” (56). If he really wants his reader to be dissatisfied, he succeeds. The chapter is a hodgepodge of historical sources Dylan may have drawn from punctuated with exquisite Dylanisms such as this gem from a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone: “We can’t change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time” (16). Much of this material, such as the connections between Dylan and The Odyssey, is interesting in its own right even if it fails to amount to more than a string of disparate riffs.


The subsequent two chapters, which treat Dylan as a historian and as a mythmaker, respectively, are the highlights of the book. Here Dominguez achieves his most focused and insightful analysis. Inferring from his (Dylan’s) appreciation of The Wasteland that Dylan was influenced by Eliot’s “ideological underpinnings” (60), Dominguez draws a line from Eliot’s “‘historical sense,’ which he defines as ‘a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’” (61) to Dylan’s practice of collaging his songs (not to mention his paintings, books, and speeches) from historical sources that feel contemporary to him and that he makes feel timeless to his audience. While the causal link between Eliot and Dylan is suspicious, from a Dylan-like angle, it hardly matters. “‘A songwriter,’ [Dylan] says, ‘doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth’” (94). In the same way that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” seems like it was written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it was first performed weeks prior to it, Dominguez is right that Dylan was influenced by Eliot, even if he wasn’t.


At the core of Bob Dylan in the Attic is Dominguez’s engagement with Dylan and myth, which he calls Dylan’s strongest historical register. Dylan’s music and his life (as he performs it publicly) are foremost mythical constructions. Dominguez isn’t the first to make this argument, but he makes it well. As Dylan himself has increasingly been telling us over the last several years – most emphatically in his new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song – and explicitly showing us for at least three decades, dating back to his cover albums Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the American songbook is mythological to him, in the sense of being truer than the literal or the historically accurate. Dominguez quotes an unusually succinct and direct Dylan making this point in 1997 to David Gates of Newsweek: “‘I find religiosity and philosophy in music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists. . . . I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs’” (88–89).


Dylan’s listeners believe his songs, too. One consequence of “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Hurricane” – to name a few songs that bore so deeply into their biographical subjects that they somehow elevate them from individuals to archetypes and that take less obvious poetic license than, say, “Tempest” – is that the historical liberties Dylan takes with them and the mythologies that result have effectively displaced the relevant facts in the cultural consciousness. Dylan is adept at turning what happened into what should have happened. The truth is often stranger than fiction, and, as Dylan demonstrates again and again, the mythological is often truer than the truth.


Yet Dylan’s mythologizing is often seen as a problem, with his loudest critics resorting to charges of fraud, fake, imposter, phony, and the like. These critics could possibly be right if their literal mindedness didn’t lead them to miss the point entirely. Dylan isn’t a valuable historian because he’s diligent in his evidence gathering. He’s a valuable historian because of his ear for the truth. In the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s foundational conception in On Bullshit, it is “indifference to how things really are” that constitutes “the essence of bullshit.” The bullshitter will say anything that is to his present advantage. But even at his most 1966-caustic, Dylan’s irony always gives the suggestion of pointing toward things (truths) that can’t (or shouldn’t) be put into direct language. If, technically, he lies when he invents an early autobiography that has him running away from home and joining carnivals or when he rewrites history to serve a song’s needs, he must be understood as Dominguez understands him: “Just like Homer, just like Thucydides (the rhetorician), the modern songster can produce a verisimilar past edging toward veracity itself” (18).


Dominguez is right when he tells us that Dylan’s “creative use of a classical textual tradition does not imply ignorance of that tradition; on the contrary, playfulness implies comfort” (10). But while Dylan’s fluid relationship with the past doesn’t expose him as a bullshitter or as someone for whom a little knowledge has proved to be a dangerous thing, he nevertheless presents a slippery case for a scholar.


What distinguishes Dylan’s rewriting of history for the sake of the present from Big Brother’s, if not something like the goodness in his soul? And what harder thing ever was there to locate in the history of American culture than the essence and soul of Bob Dylan? One problem with the accusations of fraudulence pointed at Dylan is that they assume an essential self that is being deceptively misrepresented for personal gain (fame? money? really? at this point?). But Dominguez joins the likes of Greil Marcus and Todd Haynes in challenging this simple assumption, writing, “what if the so-called masks worn by Dylan are not mere costumes? What if, in fact, these masks can be something more akin to embodiments?” (56). To put this another way, recognizing that Dylan is a performer doesn’t indicate that he isn’t also a good one.


Part of the magic of listening to Dylan’s 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall (The Bootleg Series, Volume 6) is hearing a giddy Dylan tell his audience in the transition between “Gates of Eden” and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)” that “It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.” Dylan is widely thought to have been stoned during this performance and two songs later will forget the opening lyrics to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” And maybe if he hadn’t been so stoned and so giddy he wouldn’t have revealed what wasn’t yet obvious to everyone: that whoever he “really” is, he is capable of becoming whoever the song needs him to be without a moment’s notice. Listen again to the lead-up and false start to, and then the flawless execution of, Bootleg 6’s “I Don’t Believe You.” Once two fans provide him with the lyrics he needs, Dylan is still laughing when he tries to start singing and sputters out. But the switch to singing the song with utter conviction happens instantaneously. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it happens anew every time before you can realize it. In the time it takes him to say “now” (as in, “It’s the same song, same song, only we start it now.”) he is transformed from one person (the unmasked Dylan) to another (the singer, never unmasked). Don’t look back, indeed. This essence we insist on searching for, how will we know when we find it? As Greil Marcus writes in his new book, Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, “it may be that his true biography is his inhabiting of other lives” (211).


History, like Dylan, assumes the form its moment requires, and it belongs to whoever voices it best. Applying this pragmatic rendering of Dominguez’s to one lesson of Dylan’s music – that ideas are not distinct from their articulation – we can learn another: that it is better to be good than to be right if what you want is to be heard and maybe remembered.

Greil Marcus. Folk Music: A Dylan Biography in Seven Songs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 288 pp.

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason


Greil Marcus’s latest book joins his other studies of Bob Dylan: Invisible Republic (later renamed The Old, Weird America) on the basement tapes; Like a Rolling Stone on the song of that name; one third (on “Ballad of Hollis Brown”) of the volume Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations; and the essay collection Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. This is already quite a haul, and with this newest offering we have a further distillation of its author’s lifetime of attentive Dylan listening.


The choice of seven songs consists of six original Dylan compositions and one cover version, “Jim Jones,” from Good As I Been To You. The other songs are “Blowin’ in the Wind” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the title track and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from The Times They Are a-Changin’, “Desolation Row” from Highway 61 Revisited, “Ain’t Talkin’” from Modern Times, and “Murder Most Foul” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.


Marcus devotes a chapter to each song, with some sections offering a comprehensive overview and others confining themselves to specific aspects. Inevitably, some portions have been published before, as duly noted in the acknowledgments. In particular, the material in the “Blowin’ in the Wind” chapter on Blind Lemon Jefferson and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” formed part of a paper delivered at the major Dylan conference held in Tulsa in 2019, subsequently published in Sean Latham’s collective volume The World of Bob Dylan.


Marcus’s aim is to demonstrate what he sees as a major quality of Dylan’s songwriting, namely empathy – “the desire and the ability to enter other lives” (5), by means of which “he can take anyone else’s life as his own” (7). On that basis, the author offers his sequence of analyses as “an attempt at a biography [of Dylan] made up of songs and public gestures” (7). The term “folk music” in the title might raise eyebrows, as by no means all of Dylan’s vast musical output is usually classified in that category. In the “Blowin’ in the Wind” chapter Marcus speaks of “the milieu of folk music … the state of mind of folk music, in a certain sense, truly a state, its own country” (21). Folk music is of course the medium practised in the New York circles frequented by the early Dylan, and the chosen genre of numerous artists evoked by Marcus in various parts of the book. On that time and place, he quotes Suze Rotolo: “Folk music was taking hold of a generation” (37). “Folk music” as a term may not fit too well with other facets of Dylan’s career, but that is where it all started. It is from there that Marcus begins, and the way he narrates the song histories is such as to leave the reader with the sensation that since all of Dylan’s work is rooted in a tradition of one kind or another, in a sense, yes, for certain purposes and in certain contexts it can all be seen as folk music.


The first chapter, on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is the longest and most detailed. The author recounts how he first heard Dylan’s version of the song (as opposed to the ubiquitous Peter, Paul and Mary cover) on a Berkeley FM station in summer 1963 (12, 87). Marcus traces its live debut to Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village on April 16th, 1962, and its first appearance on record to the version released by the New World Singers later that year. He recalls the well-known circumstance that Dylan’s melody can be sourced to “No More Auction Block,” the Civil War anti-slavery anthem as interpreted by Odetta and later by Dylan himself. With regard to Dylan’s use of the song for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Marcus opines:

The melody was a social fact, something none of the Gerde’s regulars would have missed; there was nothing in hiding. “Blowin’ in the Wind” borrowed authority from that melody.(23)

Indeed, in Dylan’s version of “No More Auction Block” Marcus finds “one of the deepest performances of his career” (28), as well as an early instance of that notion which underpins the book, namely Bob Dylan’s capacity for empathy.


Marcus recalls how “Blowin’ in the Wind” saw publication in both Broadside and Sing Out!, and tells us how the not always sympathetic Little Sandy Review (from Dylan’s own Minnesota) dispelled its doubts to label “Blowin’ in the Wind” as “Dylan’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’” and declare that “the song should be with us at least as long as the folk revival (and probably a lot longer)” (48). Then came Dylan’s own commercial release of the song on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in May 1963, following which many “couldn’t listen to anything else, because [they] heard something in the Bob Dylan version that wasn’t there at all when Peter, Paul and Mary sang the song” (57). Nonetheless, years later in 2015, Dylan expressed his gratitude to the folk trio for turning his song into a hit: “Not the way I would have done it – they straightened it out. …[but] I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t for them” (57).


Marcus discusses other songs in this long chapter. He offers a close examination of Dylan’s first-album version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” to show how the young upstart revolutionized “folk music,” turning conventions inside out. He also includes an interesting discussion of “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” stating that in this song “it seemed that Bob Dylan was some sort of fictional character that someone else named Bob Dylan was singing about,” reading it as “a dream in which all sense of dream is gone”: “the song rejected youth and walked away” (58).


There are latter-day reminiscences too. Marcus recalls the performances of the song at the Rolling Thunder Revue concerts, and how Dylan said in 1975:

“Blowin’ in the Wind” holds up. I felt that song. Whenever Joan and I do it, it really is like an old folk song to me. It never occurs to me that I’m the person who wrote it. (63)

Marcus also reminds us of how many artists covered the song from early on, all the way from the Staple Singers to the Bee Gees, and how Dylan performed it in 1985 at Live Aid in Philadelphia, and in 1997 in Bologna before Pope John Paul II, who for the occasion transformed himself into a Dylan interpreter – the wind, said the pontiff, is “the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says ‘Come!’” (17). Marcus also recollects how in 2011 he wrote the afternotes for a children’s book of the song, and how it still seemed somehow “unfinished” and “still didn’t sound as it was written by a particular person” (13). He recalls, too, the well-known story of how Dylan’s song inspired Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Finally, Marcus recontextualizes “Blowin’ in the Wind” and its debt to “No More Auction Block” within the contemporary environment: in the chapter’s final citation, Minnesota State Representative Ruth Richardson, present at the site of George Floyd’s grave, quotes those same words from Dylan’s refrain, “blowing in the wind” (81).


This chapter could have been simply a reprise of stories already known to Dylan’s followers via Chronicles, Volume One or Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time. In fact, the chapter goes well beyond those memoirs, emerging as a selective early Dylan biography with “Blowin’ in the Wind” as leitmotif. At chapter’s end, homing in on the book’s key themes, Marcus admits the song into the hallowed precincts of “folk song” and declares: “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ lived its own life as if it were a person: it made its own biography” (61). Thus for Marcus, a song may not only support its author’s biography: it can also have a biography of its own.


Chapter two continues the focus on the protest years, foregrounding “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” written in late 1963 and released in 1964 on The Times They Are a-Changin’. The song, which Marcus tells us he has been listening to constantly for near on sixty years, was already in circulation in 1965, the year when, the author recalls, he first began writing about music – or more correctly music and politics, for it was his faith that “the connections between the two were simple, obvious and overwhelming” (85). In the case of “Hattie Carroll,” “the story goes,” says Marcus, that Dylan first learned of the case in the pages of a Maryland newspaper, and – according to Dylan himself in 1985 – wrote the song in New York in a restaurant on 7th Avenue (99). The discrepancies between song and fact are duly noted. Marcus has nothing but praise, both conceptually and aesthetically, for Dylan’s tale of a lonesome death, “a song that would itself become part of history, and make its own history” (100). He shows how the “unfinished judgement of the chorus” as the song advances generates outrage and fear (101), and praises the dramatic force of Dylan’s writing and the empathy that it manifests: “You were implicated in the drama. You were forced into every role and there was no exit” (93).


Marcus goes on to juxtapose “Hattie Carroll” with a song from 1981 (and a major hit in the U.K.), “O Superman,” sung by New York performance artist Laurie Anderson. Anderson’s song, he stresses, emerged from “a world completely different” from that of “Hattie Carroll,” with the stakes now transformed as the Thatcher/Reagan years advanced (106). Marcus doesn’t really compare the two songs, giving each piece of social criticism its separate analysis, but at chapter’s end he is surely thinking as much of Dylan’s song as of Anderson’s when he says of the latter: “Songs not only mark history, or even make it, but become part of its fabric” (117).


Chapter four (we will leap chapter three till later, keeping Dylan’s rather than Marcus’s chronology) once again focuses on the protest years, specifically “The Times They Are a- Changin,” the title track of the 1964 album where it rubs shoulders with “Hattie Carroll.” Marcus finds this famous song a shade formulaic, claiming it “was so programmatic it could have been written by a committee” (158). He juxtaposes it with a much later song, 2000’s “Things Have Changed,” which he reads less as an exercise in cynicism than as an attempt to enter the minds of others, of those who “used to care” (160). Marcus asks rhetorically whether Dylan’s song from 1964 is today anything more than an “old warhorse,” a superannuated protest song – and answers in the affirmative (162). He concludes the chapter by narrating a case of racial violence: the killing at police hands in 2016 of a young African-American man, Philando Castile, in Saint Paul, as denounced in a 2017 painting by Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor, captioned by the artist with the pregnant legend [as cited by Marcus] “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGIN, FAST ENOUGH!! [sic]”


Following the Dylan chronology, next up is chapter five, entitled “Desolation Row.” It should be stressed that Marcus is here offering not a full analysis of this long and complex song – something he has done elsewhere – but, rather, a commentary on its opening. What is at issue is essentially the first stanza, with its opening line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” followed by circus imagery (“the circus is in town”). As others have done, Marcus links the first line of Dylan’s song directly to the episode in Dylan’s birthplace Duluth in 1920 when a white mob lynched three African-American performers in a travelling circus. A lynching, Marcus reminds us, was “entertainment, spectacle, even sport” (174). He explicates the postcard phenomenon thus: “In the first decades of the twentieth century there had been a craze for postcards of lynchings of black Americans,” adding that “a postcard depicting the lynching of three black circus workers … in Duluth in 1920 … was among the most popular of all” (169).


The author states that we have no way of knowing whether the young Dylan knew of the lynching through his family, his father and grandfather who might have been there. Be that as it may, Marcus calls it “a cataclysmic event [that] implicated everyone” (170). Marcus further compares its impact (and subsequent silencing) to the aftermath of another near-contemporaneous act of racial violence, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and speculates whether “Desolation Row” somehow bears the marks of the erasure from history of the Duluth episode, with what the official records suppressed returning through the medium of song. He concludes that whether or not Dylan’s family members were present on the fatal day in Duluth, the fact that Dylan as “imaginative artist” has integrated the episode into “Desolation Row” means that “he could have imagined that they were” (175). For Marcus, then, Dylan’s art symbolically reshapes his family history.


Chapter six extends the book’s scope to take in one of the multitude of songs covered by Bob Dylan, namely the Anglo-Australian ballad “Jim Jones.” Much of the chapter, however, is less about Dylan, though he makes his appearances, than about folk music in general and its early-60s US scene in particular. Marcus evokes the “sense of folk music as its own world, as a negation of the ordinary, the predictable, the life one was meant to live” (202). The chapter begins with a conspectus of the Greenwich Village folk scene, in the shape of a kind of annotated guest list of a party held in April 1961 for Cisco Houston in the apartment of folk music patron Camilla Adams. Marcus’s source here is none other than Dylan’s own account of the event in chapter two of Chronicles. Along with Dylan, the guests ranged from Harry Belafonte to Pete Seeger, with Marcus dwelling in particular (as Dylan did) on Pete’s brother Mike Seeger and his trio the Lost City Ramblers. Marcus quotes a Dylan overwhelmed by Mike’s impromptu interpretations of folk songs and – as he says in Chronicles – deciding: “I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know” (191).


That is what Dylan went on to do – but years later, as Marcus recalls, at a certain point in the 1980s, Dylan began in performance to “sing the old songs again, the songs Mike did know” (193). This development was followed by his return to folksong material on record with Good As I Been To You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong in 1993. Out of the songs covered by Dylan in this period, Marcus focuses on “Jim Jones.” This ballad, with its theme of transportation, has been dated to the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Starting out from the studio recording on Good As I Been To You, the author, commenting in detail on the vocal and instrumental aspects, ranges across Dylan’s thirty-one live performances of the song, all of which took place in 1993 (he thanks the anonymous fan who supplied him with the complete collection of live versions!). Marcus the attentive listener tracks Dylan across the gamut of performances, “trying to find the right way to play it. And then the next right way” (218). In “Jim Jones,” he concludes, Dylan was “staking his claim to the tradition Mike Seeger and others had opened up for him” (221); he was now able to sing the old songs “as if he had written them himself and had been written by them” (223).


We will now turn the pages back to chapter three and its out-of sequence discussion that jumps to 2006 and “Ain’t Talkin’,” the most ambitious song on Modern Times, and praised by Marcus as “one of [Dylan’s] most distinctive songs” (126). He offers a close analysis of Dylan’s tormented narration of a doomed circular quest and a seeker unable to escape from himself. Marcus refers throughout to the Modern Times version: the outtake that appeared on Tell Tale Signs is not mentioned, though Bettye Lavette’s cover is. Marcus sees the song’s “deliberate and slow,” violin-tinged opening as magisterial, ushering in a world of “resentment and hatred and vengeance and regret, and the wish to bury it all in some cynical peace of mind” (125). He tries to make sense of the song’s chaos by tracing its links to multiple traditions, that of folk song included – and to Dylan’s own more visionary quest in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a “great song” (136) also evoked in the chapter. Marcus reminds us that the opening of “Ain’t Talkin”, “As I walked out…,” is that of a myriad folk songs (not forgetting Dylan’s own “As I Went Out One Morning”). He acknowledges Dylan’s borrowing of lines from Ovid (now an established fact of Dylan criticism, courtesy of Cliff Fell, Robert Polito and Richard Thomas), also taking in the traditional rootedness of the refrain’s words “Ain’t talkin’ / Just walkin,” embodying what he calls “a rhyme embedded in American English” (121). Curiously, though, Marcus does not mention Dylan’s direct debt in his refrain to the Stanley Brothers’ “Highway of Regret.”[1] The author sees in “Ain’t Talkin’” “a song about someone facing his own oblivion,” but also “a reflecting back on Bob Dylan’s career” (151), an ironic revisiting of the notion of folk music as the badge of a community that saw itself as special: hence, it may be, the song’s ambivalent line “I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned.”


Marcus’s book concludes, fast-forwarding to February 2020, with his observations on “Murder Most Foul.” This song, which prior to its appearance later that year on Rough and Rowdy Ways was released as a single against the backdrop of the pandemic, is notable, first for being Dylan’s longest composition ever and second for its division into two discrete parts, one chronicling the Kennedy assassination and the other created around a litany of (mostly musical) quotations and titles. For Marcus, this song is a major Dylan work that “seems to bear more weight every time” (227): nor is he alone in this, as is clear from the numerous accolades he quotes, from Elvis Costello to The Wall Street Journal. He reads its opening as a limit case of Dylan’s capacity for empathy as he enters the dying president’s brain and relives his last moments – and its ending, coiling around its own title with the challenge “Play ‘Murder Most Foul’,” as impelling the listener to reboot the circle and go right through the song again. He does not attempt to interrogate the historicity of Dylan’s take on the assassination, nor does he try to catalogue the rosary of titles and allusions (others have done that), though he does see the song as a logical extension of Dylan’s recent phase of interpreting standards. The last words of the book, implying Dylan’s role as inheritor of a tradition and keeper of the flame, pose a question to the future as Marcus asks: “What will go out of the world with him?” (239).


This book is a welcome enrichment of Greil Marcus’s already remarkable contribution to Dylan studies, and the discussions of individual songs, while varying in length and breadth, are without exception valuable additions to those songs’ critical corpus. The author eloquently demonstrates how his chosen songs manifest Bob Dylan’s capacity for empathy and his ultimate rootedness in the folk tradition. As always, Marcus’s take on Dylan is both sedulously researched and eminently personal, and he once again demonstrates his highly individual capacity for getting inside a song and extracting its signifying potential. With criticism like this, the Dylan community can be assured that whatever the future holds, much, very much, will remain in the world thanks to Bob Dylan.


[1] Russell, Bob. “Bob Dylan and The Stanley Brothers.” Dylan Review, vol. 4.1, 2022