“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

Bob Dylan. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022. 352pp.

REVIEW BY Jonathan Hodgers, Trinity College, Dublin


Dylan’s long-awaited Philosophy of Modern Song defies easy categorization. It’s sixtysix mini-essays on sixty-six songs. Pictures account for much of the content. Despite the title, it is not always a straightforward work of philosophy. If anything, it’s an annotated playlist dotted with philosophical reflections. However, the term playlist doesn’t do the book justice given how elaborate (or tangential) the annotations are. It’s also unclear how essential some of the songs are to the essays. They’re apt to work as jumping-off points for exploring a given subject matter and are not there as simple recommendations.


The book’s unusual presentation finds parallels in the content. There’s no introduction or conclusion, omitting an explanation of the book’s raison d’être. In the interview conducted by Jeff Slate for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of the book, Dylan doesn’t address the book’s inspiration or how he picked the songs.[1] While the content can range widely, the essays follow a template of sorts. He will paraphrase the song’s plot and character dynamics, offer portraits of singers, describe particular performances, and reflect on musicological details or production qualities. He might also extemporize on the song’s themes. Different combinations thereof are regular. He juxtaposes the essays with images. Dylan calls them “running mates to the text.”[2] Sometimes, their connection is oblique. Other times, the images reflect the essays’ topics (the verbal/visual interplay is delightfully basic at times – actual eagles for the Eagles, for instance). The template helps keep the chapters fresh by balancing consistency within variation (not unlike aspects of the songs he praises). It’s not an especially formalist text, which may partly be the point. He heavily emphasizes music’s emotive impact. However, songwriting’s more technical aspects do occasionally come under the microscope.


The writing itself has a distinct style. The tone is erudite but not alienating. It bears comparison to the World Gone Wrong liner notes, but adapts a cleaner, more prosaic approach fit for broader public consumption. At times, it can be blustery or gushing (the Perry Como entry: “[he] could out-sing anybody. His performance is just downright incredible. There is nothing small you can say about it. The orchestration alone can knock you off your feet.”)[3] It can be prolix and prosaic, as with the “‘My Generation” entry: “They don’t like you because you pull out all the stops and go for broke. You put your heart and soul into everything and shoot the works.”[4] It’s vernacular, willfully leaning into cliché. He’s apparently having fun with the clichés too; his stitching them together has its own comedy value (“It’s just a hop skip and jump to cloud nine.”)[5] What they lack in inventiveness or precision, they make up for in tone. It’s the way one might pitch a song or singer to a friend – it’s not all terse, calculated soundbites but draws from common stock locutions that convey unpremeditated enthusiasm. Comma splices, tautologies, and repetitions add to the effect. (These techniques seem to work better when spoken aloud, as attested to by the couple of passages Dylan recorded for the audiobook.) He’ll also link clichés and round them off with a more unusual turn of phrase (“You’re tickled pink and walking on air, and there’s no end to space.”)[6]The blend of the familiar and the individual may be the point in some way. This tendency extends to the content. The combination of esoterica and unusual locutions with more conventional, encyclopaedic information gives the writing its richness (or, as he told Jeff Slate, the “pulling old elements together and making something new”).[7]


Despite the essays mostly adhering to a similar structural outline, there are qualitative and quantitative differences between them. Some songs inspire more fleshed-out ideas and insightful commentary than others. It’s curious what songs defeat him. He can’t seem to do much with the two Little Richard songs (“Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”) but is clearly taken with “Old Violin” – or specifically, a special live performance enriched by Johnny Paycheck’s presence – which inspires some of the book’s best writing. He highlights both physical gestures and vocal touches that capture the bottled lightening of the performance, conferring upon it a fated quality. Perhaps his commentary succeeds here owing to its audio-visual reference point; his writing magnifies objective features rather than offering subjective impressions. As vivid as Dylan’s more subjective paraphrases can be, his readings sometimes seem off. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” doesn’t work well. Dylan rather perversely sidesteps the obvious romantic dynamic and substitutes it for a less convincing business arrangement. The “Come On-A My House” essay aims to give the song a sinister touch, but it’s just not there, at least not in the Rosemary Clooney rendition. Mostly though, his writing offers evocative vignettes that tease out the song’s depths and elucidate the musicians’ contributions in perceptive ways.


Dylan appears to use these songs to declare allegiances with certain genres quite separate from actually liking the representative song he’s chosen to write about. Something about these songs moved him to write about them, but that’s not to say they’re strictly commendable. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe he finds anything of genuine interest (such as with “Come On-A My House” – in keeping with the food references, he calls it a “little trifle.”)[8] However, it’s not so much his sincerity that matters (“I’m no more sincere than you” from Eat the Document springs to mind), more whether he sells these songs as having the qualities and values he ascribes to them. People’s tolerance levels will differ here. It’s unlikely anyone ever thought of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” the way Dylan does, but he certainly presents an interesting case.


Gradations of rock ’n’ roll, blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley material spur most of the essays. Dylan omits much of the traditional material he made his name covering and adapting in the 1960s (“Jesse James” is the only representative). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t care for pop (loosely defined). In reference to Johnnie Ray, Dylan says “his feelings were too direct-hotwired from his brain for a mere pop record.”[9] The term “mere” also appears in the “My Prayer” essay [10] He never makes clear what pop is (certainly, some of the songs he includes were emphatically popular and chart-friendly), yet he’s far from alone in using it as a catch-all term for songs considered inferior. Simon Frith identifies pop as a “residual” category, or “what’s left when all the other forms of popular music are stripped away.” Among other things, “It’s music produced commercially, for profit, as a matter of enterprise not art.”[11] Dylan’s idea of it seems similar.


The way Dylan uses pop exemplifies how he uses contrasts in general to illustrate good-versus-bad performance practices and attitudes. Part of Dylan’s modus operandi is to make antagonists of certain musicians and styles against which good songs and musicians must win out. In the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” essay, Joe Satriani (representing instrumental rock) stands in for guitar pyrotechnics without substance or respect for the song. Satriani is a virtuoso player but can of course play tastefully and judiciously. Satriani defended himself (“I think the great Hank Williams and I could have sorted things out and made some great music together”),[12] but these references have less to do with personal slights than venerating and denigrating types of songs and styles through loose metonymy. Satriani’s not alone either; Dylan does the same with Springsteen and the Beatles. Springsteen’s characteristic sound clouds Costello’s “Pump it Up,” for instance, while the Beatles’ faux-naivete and adolescent appeal contrast poorly with “London Calling.” The entire Chess stable (among them, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf) takes a hit next to Little Walter, who “might have been the only one with real substance.”[13] These performers and styles play oppositional parts, indicating predilections that Dylan portrays as lesser next to the songs, styles, and musicians he promotes. Such artists are collateral damage in Dylan’s dispensing praise.


This praise is where we often find the most philosophical material. While they don’t occupy the bulk of the book, there are philosophical precepts insofar as Dylan draws general principles from specific songs. Many qualities that he esteems are aesthetic evergreens. Lewis Rowell provides a summary in the context of Ancient Greek music philosophy: “simple is better than complex, natural is better than artificial, [and] moderation in all things.”[14] The “Without a Song” essay touches on these facets in reference to Perry Como: “He was a Cadillac before the tail fins; a Colt .45, not a Glock; steak and potatoes, not California cuisine … No artifice, no forcing one syllable to spread itself thin across many notes.” Regarding “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” Dylan says: “Nothing artificial about this song, nothing manufactured or contrived about it. Nothing cosmetic or plastic here.” He also writes that “Key to the Highway” is “Unadorned, with no histrionics – controlled, nuanced and true.”[15] Given his apparent interest in Greek myth and literature, it’s perhaps telling that Dylan’s criteria have an overall classical inclination. In the “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore” essay, he offers a tell-tale sign: “He’s no rapper. More like an ancient Greek poet; you know exactly what he’s saying and who he’s saying it to.”[16]


Other entries praise judiciousness, balance, and brevity. In the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” essay, he tells us that “The fiddle and steel guitar phrases are a great part of the melody. Each phrase goes hand in hand with the voice. This … takes simpatico players and is done with very simple notes of a chord, played with the exact correct intensity… Phrases like this are worth more than all the technical licks in the world.”[17] Alongside this dig at perceived immoderation and showiness, one can detect a distrust of the glossy professional and respect for the street-schooled amateur. Aristotle would recognize Dylan’s attitude. In referring to music’s role in education, he avers that “pupils … not [be] made to attempt the extraordinary and extravagant feats of execution which have recently been introduced into competitions … Performances should be carried only to the point at which students begin to be able to appreciate good melodies and rhythms.”[18]


À la Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, Dylan also praises the permanent and lasting. What counts is what’s durable. For “Ball of Confusion,” he writes: “The reality of this song is that it’s just as true now as the day it was recorded.”[19] It also crops up in the “Black Magic Woman” chapter; those too in thrall to musical and literary rules “run the danger of never transcending craft to create anything truly lasting.”[20] He’s more explicit in the Wall Street Journal interview: “A great song [is] timeless and ageless.”21 This mindset even extends to his pastimes. He tells Jeff Slate that boxing is “functional and detached from trends.”[22]


As familiar as some of his judgments are from historical literature on music, he brings a host of newer parameters into his critique. Some are recognizable from popular music aesthetics in the rock era and in part stem from standards he himself helped to set. Broadly, we can see Dylan align with what Keir Keightley would see as Romantic authenticity, gravitating towards: “tradition and continuity with the past; roots; sense of community; populism; belief in a core or essential rock sound; folk, blues, country, rock’n’roll styles; gradual stylistic change; sincerity, directness; ‘liveness’; ‘natural’ sounds; [and] hiding musical technology.”[23] Dylan touches on these qualities in his interview with Jeff Slate: “[The songs] were straightforward, and my relationship to them at first was external, then became personal and intense. The songs were simple, easy to understand, and they’d come to you in a direct way.”[24] While his allegiances roughly lie with these Romantic precepts, Dylan does not always fit into them neatly. Individual songs capture his attention based on different criteria (what Keightley would see as modernist authenticity, indicated by a fondness for experimentation and progress). Novelty for its own sake doesn’t impress Dylan, but innovative, trailblazing songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “My Generation” are not overlooked.


Relatedly, mavericks operating within, outside, or against the mainstream garner his sympathy. The criteria are expressed neatly in the “Poison Love” entry when Dylan refers to Johnnie & Jack: “They deserve to be in all the halls of fame, because they are innovators – innovators on the highest level – and don’t jump through hoops for anybody.”[25] In this context, unpretentious journeymen also fare well; as already noted, Dylan writes admiringly of Perry Como, but Bobby Darin too earns his praise. Believability counts for a great deal. We’re told that “When [Como] stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?”[26] Indeed, believing the singer (over and above adherence to technical norms or conventionally pretty vocals) is part of Dylan’s influence – practically a testament to his own achievements. This leads us to a peculiar quality of the text: its autobiographical quality.


At times, his takes on songs and performers resonate with Dylan’s history. One can see parallels between the people he writes about and Dylan’s own life, as if he were explaining himself through analogous individuals. A reflection on Nuta Kotlyarenko in the “There Stands the Glass” essay offers tantalizing parallels with Dylan. Dylan’s version of Kotlyarenko’s biography practically remixes details from his own: Ukrainian Jewish ancestry; “trying his hand at boxing and acting”; moving from Minnesota to New York; and reinventing oneself.[27] Dylan essentially talks about himself at times; musing on Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea,” he tells us that “Some people create new lives to hide their past. Bobby knew that sometimes the past was nothing more than an illusion and you might just as well keep making stuff up.”[28] Even the name doesn’t need to be changed. He also writes about Johnny Paycheck’s name change in ways that clearly resonate with his own re-branding from Zimmerman to Dylan. In telling us about laudable songwriting, he additionally highlights other writers’ approaches that contextualise his own. In the “Ruby, Are You Mad?” essay, he tells us how “the song morphed and grew … It was still the same song but the tiny grace notes and elasticity kept it alive, shook the dust from its boots. Of course, some people cried foul and those people should’ve stayed home.” Also, in reference to Dion, he says that “Most recently, he has realized one of his early dreams and become some kind of elder legend, a bluesman from another Delta.”[29] One can read a multitude of Dylan’s own experiences into these comments.


While Dylan broadly cleaves to Romantic authenticity as his yardstick, he is still apt to admire songs for contrasting reasons. He regularly praises the flexible and mutable. He appears to favour what Stephen Davies terms ontologically “thin” pieces. Thinner works facilitate more interpretation. Greater latitude is granted to the performer (within certain stylistic constraints).[30] “Thicker” works (for example, a significant amount of classical music) require greater fidelity to specifics, where new interpretations have much in common with earlier iterations. He appears to gravitate to both songs’ and artists’ adaptability: “Bobby Darin could sound like anybody and sing any style”; “[Little Walter] is an amazingly flexible singer”; and “The malleability of [‘Blue Moon’] frees it from being too associated with any single version and allows it to belong to everyone.”[31] He also touches on this in the Wall Street Journal interview: ‘A great song … can be played with a full orchestra score or by a strolling minstrel… A great song mutates, makes quantum leaps … It crosses genres … and can be played in …multiple styles.”[32]


He appears to trust less those “thick” songs too in thrall to arrangements. In the “Blue Moon” essay, he avers that “Some songs, like … ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ … are as dependent on their arrangement as the music or lyrics for their identity. Not so ‘Blue Moon.’ ‘Blue Moon’ is a universal song that can appeal to anybody at any time.”[33] While I’m not sure this is meant pejoratively, one still senses a hint of distaste in context.[34] That being said, Dylan will promote the arrangement as the magic ingredient in a song. He tells us that for “It’s All in The Game,” “the arrangement is key.”[35] This is to say he’s not especially prescriptive. Qualities that get in the way in one song are precisely what another song thrives on.


Dylan also occasionally highlights songwriting techniques; for instance, he appreciates paradox. He unearths unspoken undertows that deepen the song’s meaning. As Cleanth Brooks illuminated in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), the guise of simplicity or the direct attack (Brooks uses Wordsworth as an example) belies paradoxical situations that give ostensibly straightforward material extra resonance. Dylan astutely draws from The Who’s “My Generation” an anxiety on Townsend’s part that he will soon be the one the younger generation wishes would fade away. That awareness cannot be traced to any specific point in the song or line of the lyrics. Yet, the implicit fear can be intuited through a latent defensiveness. Dylan finds an analogous undertow to “Detroit City.”


Dylan wishes to preserve the capacity for people’s imagination to complete the song rather than have external imagery unduly influence their experience. He considers the background to “I’m A Fool to Want You” to be unhelpful trivia when “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”[36] In the “Ball of Confusion” essay, he tells us “The song is like an old radio show, where you could just imagine what you’re listening to. And it made for a stronger experience.”[37] In the “Old Violin” essay, he references how the story behind “Save the Last Dance for Me” provides too many specifics that interfere with how the song resonates with an individual. He criticizes music videos for the same reason (“we are locked into someone else’s messaging of the lyrics.”)[38] He prizes imagination when it comes to songwriting too; in the Wall Street Journal piece, he attests that “Creative ability is about pulling old elements together and making something new, and I don’t believe silicon chips and passwords know anything about those elements, or where they are. You have to have a vivid imagination.”[39] Relatedly, one can detect hostility to anything too systematized or scientific. In the “Black Magic Woman” essay, he mentions that “What happens with words and music is more akin to alchemy … People can keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music … tells us time and again that one plus one, in the best circumstances, equals three.”[40] At times, he sounds like another philosopher with a distaste for a scientific approach to music: Jean Jacques Rousseau (from Rousseau’s “On the Principle of Melody”: “Let us … not think that the empire Music has over our passions is ever explained by proportions and numbers”).[41]


Dylan also has techniques for how he approaches his essays. The more informative sections can give way to speculations on alternative histories. He finds musing on these what-ifs edifying; it’s not at all incongruous with No Direction Home’s “I want a dog that’s going to collect and clean my bath!” (2005) or, more recently, his concoctions in “My Own Version of You” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). In writing about pop music history, Gilbert Rodman points out that “one of the most difficult tricks in doing historical work is recapturing the sense of uncertainty that existed at some prior moment about what would happen next.”[42] Inevitability applied ex post facto has a way of drying up and ossifying the telling of history; instead, the trick is to imbue old facts with a sense of surprise and discovery by taking away that retrospective inevitability and restoring a feeling of uncertainty as to how history might unfold. In this manner, Dylan likes to upend inevitabilities by highlighting alternatives: “You have to wonder, what if Sam had sent Elvis over to Luther’s house instead of to Scotty Moore’s? Scotty and Bill would then have been backing up Johnny Cash, and Luther and Marshall Grant would have been playing with Elvis.”[43] More what-ifs include his speculations on Ricky Nelson’s lost acting opportunities in the “Poor Little Fool” essay. He also mentions alternative stories within the songs themselves, as with “Pancho and Lefty” (“In another life Pancho would’ve been in the bullring and Lefty on the Ryman country music stage.”)[44]


To close: there’s no shortage of work to be done linking The Philosophy of Modern Song up with Dylan’s previous pronouncements on musical aesthetics, but also the wider firmament of musical philosophy in general (at times, it seems as if Dylan has set up his essays to be purposely anti-Adorno – in praising “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” he attests that “it follows no line, and one part can easily be replaced by another part.”)[45] And Dylan is engaged in philosophy here, insofar as he’s doing what Sharpe views as part of analytical philosophy: “making us reflect upon unconsidered presuppositions; [which] may lead us to reflect on our lives and our values and cause us either to value things differently or perhaps more directly to alter our conduct.”[46] Dylan throwing his weight behind these criteria counts, in other words, if, by doing so, he steers songwriters and critics towards them and away from others. From his observations, Dylan infers broader principles, suggests evaluative standards, and posits aesthetic verities. Quite apart from promoting any individual work, the book also venerates the medium of song and its ability to enrich our emotional lives through the deep, personal connections we form with their worldviews and sensibilities.


[1] Jeff Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A about “The Philosophy of Modern Song”’, The Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022, https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan-interviewed-by-

[2] Slate.

[3] Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 11.

[4] Dylan, 41.

[5] Dylan, 154.

[6] Dylan, 153.

[7] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[8] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 283.

[9] Dylan, 101.

[10] Dylan, 184.

[11] Simon Frith, ‘Pop Music’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 94–95.

[12] David Browne, ‘“Jesus, Bob”: How Some Musicians Feel About Being Dissed by Dylan in “Philosophy of Modern Song”’, Rolling Stone, 16 November 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-philosophy-of-modern-song-book-backlash-1234630949/.

[13] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 7–10, 159–61, 203.

[14] Lewis Eugene Rowell, Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 39.

[15] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 11, 17, 202.

[16] Dylan, 198.

[17] Dylan, 165.

[18] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 312.

[19] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 79.

[20] Dylan, 275.

[21] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[22] Slate.

[23] Keir Keightley, ‘Reconsidering Rock’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 137.

[24] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[25] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 82.

[26] Dylan, 13.

[27] Dylan, 23.

[28] Dylan, 87.

[29] Dylan, 144, 334.

[30] Stephen Davies, ‘Rock versus Classical Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism vol. 57, no. 2 (1999): 199, https://doi.org/10.2307/432312.

[31] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 87, 201, 229.

[32] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[33] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 229.

[34] The distaste is more apparent when one looks at Dylan’s other references to the Beatles of late, where he has been apt to view them in a jaundiced light. While I’m sure interpretations differ, I can’t help but hear the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” reference in “Murder Most Foul” as Dylan looking askance at the vaguely disingenuous, infantilising title (“Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand / The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand”). In the “London Calling” essay, he namechecks the song again, portraying the Beatles and their world as quaint and twee next to the real London as captured by the Clash. Once again, what’s faddish is superseded by the real and true.

[35] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 245.

[36] Dylan, 9.

[37] Dylan, 79.

[38] Dylan, 151.

[39] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[40] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 275.

[41] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music, ed. and trans. John T. Scott, The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 7 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), 269–70.

[42] Gilbert B. Rodman, ‘Histories’, in Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, ed. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 44.

[43] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 17.

[44] Dylan, 59.

[45] Adorno, conversely, criticised this characteristic of popular music, where musical elements could be shifted around without affecting the whole (“Every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine”). See Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard D. Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 440.

[46] R. A. Sharpe, Philosophy of Music: An Introduction (Chesham: Acumen, 2004), 9.

Works cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Essays on Music. Edited by Richard D. Leppert,

translated by Susan H. Gillespie, Berkeley, CA: University of

California Press, 2002.

Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford World’s

Classics, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Browne, David. ‘“Jesus, Bob”: How Some Musicians Feel About Being Dissed

by Dylan in “Philosophy of Modern Song”’. Rolling Stone, 16

November 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-


Davies, Stephen. “Rock versus Classical Music.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art

Criticism vol. 57, no. 2, 1999, pp. 193–204. https://doi.org/10.2307/432312.

Dylan, Bob, dir. Eat the Document. 1972.

———. The Philosophy of Modern Song, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

———. Rough And Rowdy Ways, Columbia – 19439780982, 2020, compact disc.

———. World Gone Wrong, Columbia – COL 474857 2, 1993, compact disc.

Frith, Simon. “Pop Music.” The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, edited 

by Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to

Music, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 93–108

Keightley, Keir. “Reconsidering Rock.” The Cambridge Companion to Pop and

Rock, eds. Frith, Straw, and Street. 109–42.

Rodman, Gilbert B. “Histories.” Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, edited

by Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. 35–45.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to

Music. Edited and translated by John T. Scott, The Collected Writings of

Rousseau, vol. 7, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998.

Rowell, Lewis Eugene. Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of

Music, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Scorsese, Martin, dir. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, 2 discs, Hollywood:

Paramount, 2005. DVD.

Sharpe, R. A. Philosophy of Music: An Introduction, Chesham: Acumen, 2004.

Slate, Jeff. “Bob Dylan Q&A about ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’” The

Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022,

https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan- interviewed-by-wall-street-journals-jeff-slate/.

Live from Bob Dylan’s Retrospectrum

REVIEW BY Rebecca Slaman


On April 9th,2022, Richard Thomas, Anne Margaret Daniel, Laura Tenschert, and I all converged on the Florida International University campus to meet, observe, and share our knowledge of Bob Dylan. I earned my place among these brilliant speakers by providing a voice for the youth, illuminating how Dylan is received in the internet age. Sponsored by the Humanities department of the University, the four of us were invited to check out the largest collection of Dylan’s visual arts ever assembled, and to provide some insight into the artist at a symposium. “Beyond Generations: Bob Dylan Through the Looking Glass,” was a series of events including concerts by local musicians, presentations, and the dedication of a gate built by Dylan himself. The symposium closed out the exhibit, though I am glad to have spoken on the panel before viewing the art. In the presentations, we discussed Dylan as a musical artist and his impact, though Laura Tenschert specifically provided the background on how his visual art connects to his musicianship.


The exhibit, called “Retrospectrum,” was originally shown in Shanghai in 2019. In this iteration, the existing collections of paintings, drawings, and sculpture were joined by Dylan’s latest works, called Deep Focus, completed during the quarantine stage of the pandemic. The museum also received as a gift an iron-worked gate called “Untitled.” Standing tall just outside the entrance, it joined other looming, abstract sculptures in the green courtyard space. Full of colorful toolbox contents, it cast an elongated, darkly whimsical shadow. “Untitled” welcomed us as we rushed in to check out over four hundred works crafted by Dylan’s hands.


Before viewing this exhibit, any academic, fan, or casual onlooker may have questions about Dylan’s technical skill. The greatest U.S. songwriter, one may think, can’t be so talented as a painter too. Dallying into the visual arts could be seen as a hobby; a break from his “real” work. Let me assure you, the largest exhibition yet of Bob Dylan’s visual work rebukes that notion. Aside from the sheer volume of the collection, the growth of the artist is very impressive. The curation calls particular attention to the improvement of this skill, as it encompasses a wide range of time, from sketching to painting (1973-2020.) I don’t know if I would believe Dylan was capable of creating the vast, detailed pieces of Deep Focus if not for witnessing his technical improvements over time throughout the museum. Likewise, the early forays into sketch are legitimized by the formidable paintings most recently published. The title, “Retrospectrum,” Latin for “looking back,” illuminates this concept. It’s a curious choice for Dylan, who once told a reporter “nostalgia is death.” But rather than look back with nostalgia, “Retrospectrum” enables us to appreciate a complete picture of the artist through time.


Upon entering the museum, videos and music provide background on Dylan’s impact as a musician on American culture. It first introduces you to Mondo Scripto, which transitions the musical into the visual: iconic song lyrics accompanied by drawings. Beyond this exhibit, the museum flow is not linear, so patrons can choose their own paths. The most impressive paintings, though, take some work to get to. Like a reward, Deep Focus requires one to go beyond rooms of older paintings. Just off the stairs is The Beaten Path, which is the collection released just before the latest, followed by the New Orleans series, which is from the early 2010s. Placing Deep Focus after New Orleans heightens the impact of Dylan’s skill. Being Dylan’s most recent output, Deep Focus is central, and with good reason. In the other direction is a more miscellaneous collection of older paintings, drawings, sculpture, and Mondo Scripto. The non-chronological setup flattens time, providing context to the main event.


The earliest collection of paintings, created between 1989 and 1992, were originally published in the Drawn Blank series. They have a Van Gogh like quality about them in terms of compressed perspective. The subjects are often askew, as if attempting to portray distance, but not quite getting the horizon line right. They also lack depth and shading of the subject. This gives them a flat, if fanciful, appearance. Though more abstract, the skewed perspective technique mirrors Dylan’s approach in Deep Focus, where all subjects are in focus regardless of their distance from the viewer. In the Beyond Generations presentations, Laura Tenschert commented on this philosophy across Dylan’s work. Particularly, this concept of united perspective was seen in Shadow Kingdom, where background actors and actions added meaning, if the viewer knew where to look. For example, Tenschert shared that during “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a man moved in slow motion relative to the other actors. Paying attention to the background and context yields significant value when looking at Dylan’s art. Characters and words provide clues into what the artist is attempting to convey. The value of an academic cannot be overstated when approaching a collection of work on this scale; Tenschert’s presentation, much like Dylan’s artistic habits, brought all of it into frame and focus. I’m grateful to have been taught this concept before seeing the paintings, and luckily, future viewers of this collection will find the presentations preserved on the FIU website. Indeed, small details contain winks that feel intrinsic to Dylan’s character. Across all paintings, subjects reoccur, exposing us to Dylan’s visual world. Woody Guthrie’s name populates diner signs and newspapers, and you might spot the visage of Leonard Cohen sipping a coffee. But it’s not just Dylan’s artistic heroes – beautiful, breasty women also play a role in Dylan’s art. The female subjects are unidentifiable in the earlier work due to their abstractness, but the newer ones are based on specific actresses. The presence of these characters shows that though the style changes over his career, Dylan’s particular perspective remains.


My favorite of the collections is The Beaten Path. The first painting you see is a brilliant sunset taking up a better portion of a wall, and a road extending up into a mountain. “Sunset, Monument Valley,” the title says. Upon Googling the location, you can see the source picture, known as “Forrest Gump Point.” Just as Dylan is part of the folk tradition, where borrowing songs is commonplace, his paintings do the same. But where the distant mountain fades in the photo and the road climbs, Dylan brightens and expands the image, creating a looming effect. It’s very impressive on its own, let alone imagining Dylan physically completing such an expansive work. In this room, the paintings in frame look like snapshots of a roadtrip across America. Slightly askew, glowing with neon motel signs and brilliant sunsets, they appear both truthful and mystical. Some details are delightfully accurate, such as the font on a Coca-Cola sign, and a plentitude of words appear throughout the paintings in carefully crafted detail. In others, the words are twisted. The paintings contain as much accurate signage as they do artistic liberties. Dylan’s changes no longer portray their original subjects, but give off a more general vibe of Nowhere, America. Just as some scholars may hunt for the real-life counterparts of Dylan’s songs – Edie Sedgewick in “Just Like A Woman,” the location of “Desolation Row” – the songs’ sources matter less than Dylan’s musical alchemy, relaying an idea. In the paintings, accuracy of subject gives way to a sense of nostalgia and unreality.


The New Orleans series is a bit drab after the brightness of The Beaten Path. Slightly earlier in Dylan’s painting career, the technique is not as clear. It’s also not much out of the ordinary; it’s what you would expect Dylan to like. Indeed, in Chronicles: Volume One, he praises the locale: “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment… No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.” Though his experience of the Crescent City’s visuals might have been interesting, I did not find the products so. The images are muted and flat. “He’s trying,” one might say, as I did to excuse my distaste. He’s clearly making more of a concerted effort here than in the earlier paintings. Still, The Beaten Path does contain a few gems, such as “Peacemaker,” which calls to mind the music video for “Tight Connection to my Heart.” Two men in beige and gray pull fists at each other while a woman in pale pink halts their action. Their clothing is reminiscent of the 80s; one man might be in the Yakuza. The composition of the image is striking, though the drapery of the woman’s cloak is not fluid enough to make sense. Overall, I call this Dylan’s flop era.


As we approached Deep Focus, Anne Margaret Daniel prepared me to brace myself. Indeed, the scale of Dylan’s pandemic output is overwhelming. Dylan completed 33 fantastic paintings in two years! As I knew from specialist Scott Warmuth, this series consists of recreated film stills, with some artistic liberties. The exhibit itself extolls “The documentary candor of photography and film, as well as their ability to manipulate reality through cropping and framing.” Not a bad description of Dylan himself; obscuring reality to get to emotional truth. The technical skill of these paintings, regardless of their source, is laudable. The brushstrokes are sometimes thick and obscuring, sometimes small and detailed, drawing one’s eye to unexpected places. In one image, “Newsstand,” Dylan repaints the film still except for one magazine, which he replaces with a cover featuring country music artists.


In addition to greeting you at the beginning, peppered throughout the museum are Mondo Scripto pages. What a profound moment it was to round a corner and see Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter, quietly gazing at “Song to Woody” in Dylan’s own hand. As these pages are scattered throughout the exhibit, they act as reminders of Dylan’s occasionally mysterious intentions. Reviewers remarked when the book was first published that Dylan is unusual in his juxtapositions of image and lyric. While some combinations are obviously linked, others are dense and cryptic, such as “All Along the Watchtower.” Next to image-heavy lyrics of jokers and princes, Dylan features a woman in a medicine cabinet. Someone can probably find the connection here, but not this reviewer. Weirdly, when I went to look up this song’s drawing online, a different image came up, one of businessmen drinking wine around a card table. How did this happen? Why was it changed? What’s more curious, in a review of the Halcyon Gallery version of the exhibit, blogger Richard Williams commented on yet another version, a drawing of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. As Dylan fans know, even his classics are never complete: you have to keep an eye out for Dylan’s quick hands. Whether in the background of a painting or a work morphing over time, his decisions can be dizzying. In the writing, you can also see the slight handwriting differences across songs, some of them more loopy and swirly and some more straight and pointed. These discrepancies prepare you for how different the art styles in different series can be from one another; it’s all a part of form fitting content, all part of the journey.


Despite these differences, there are connecting themes. There are many open roads depicted across Dylan’s visual art, including in Mondo Scripto. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” both feature empty streets. What’s fascinating about the road trip motif is it’s often solitary in the piece; just one open road in the center of the frame, stretching out onto the horizon line. The effect is lonely, but beautiful. I often found myself trying to dissect Dylan’s attention to women subjects. In the earlier works, they are often close to the viewer, sometimes looking straight out. They’re often seductive. One painting, cheekily titled “Two Sisters,” depicts women nearly naked in bed together. As the collection goes on, women begin to occupy a space of intrigue, often looking off in the distance. The voyeuristic framing is replaced with a more distant appreciation of beauty. This progression makes me think Dylan is saying, I have given up claiming to understand women.


It’s a testament to the curators that they were able to make the exhibit so cohesive. Shai Baitel, who originally conceived the exhibit for the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai, gave a riveting talk at the Symposium that encompassed these themes. He alluded to the motif of the train, which appears in many of Dylan’s works. It also is a powerful symbol that provides an “in” to the perspective of Dylan-as-painter. As with his other art, the man himself is incredibly intriguing. I and the other speakers often found ourselves pondering the “why”, as we often do. Why did Dylan use this subject, this reference, this still? Why does his signature change across paintings? Viewing his painterly perspective as a train ride is a perfect way through; what we see is what he sees.


What struck me as a bit obscuring by the curators, and maybe by Dylan, is the lack of labels beside the artwork. All the information about the exhibit was presented with corresponding numbers in a thick book, printed in both English and Spanish. In the exhibits themselves, the walls were blank except for the art, the collection titles, and a few quotes from Dylan about his process, printed large on the wall. In the same vein as his untitled gate, perhaps he does not find the art’s titles and dates important. From the curators’ perspective, perhaps they want the art to stand on its own, to establish Dylan as a “real” visual artist. As with “Sunset, Monument Valley,” knowing the title can reveal how close his painting is to a photograph, which could discredit it. Or it could be the desire to establish the art outside of Dylan’s written work. Even through titles, his writing may have been enough to distract attention from the paintings on their own. This decision did make it more difficult to follow Dylan’s framing of the works. As a writer, I missed having that information while taking notes, but it did create visually pleasing, clean rooms.


As they probably were for Dylan, these works are an escape. The man took from images he could project in his own home, and painted his way to a new place which straddles reality and imagination. Dylan takes us on a journey through his perspective, and to find it, you just have to look at the details.

Jon Stewart. Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 238pp.

REVIEW BY Barry J. Faulk, Florida State University


Don’t let the eye-catching title mislead you: Jon Stewart’s new book is a dual biography of John Lennon and Bob Dylan that focuses on the evolving views of these two towering figures in pop music on politics and religion. Marx and God frequently appear but largely in supporting roles. That said, the book fully lives up to its ambitious title in its expansive scope, ranging over topics from 1960s protest music to cognitive science. You might expect a book on Dylan and Lennon to dive deeply into the cultural history of the 1960s, in particular the radical counterculture politics that played such an important role in how rock music was received at the time. Stewart’s book is informative on the contemporaneous cultural contexts that shaped Lennon and Dylan, but he also goes to great lengths to provide a 19th century backstory for their ideas about politics, religion, and history itself.


Stewart holds himself to a rigorous standard of criticism, applying three different methodological approaches to Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God. Stewart draws on R. Serge Denisoff’s sociological analysis of the 1960s protest song to frame his study of Dylan and Lennon’s contributions to the genre; he appropriates literary critic Fredric Jameson’s Marxist cultural hermeneutic to interpret how Dylan and Lennon conceived of history, especially national history, and how their music interacted within industrial and post-industrial modes of production; and finally, he applies the recent findings of evolutionary psychologists J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer to definitively explain (or explain away) Dylan’s and Lennon’s ideas about God and religion. While Stewart’s intellectual ambition is to be applauded, the book’s multiple frameworks can overwhelm at times. At its best, which is often, Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God traces the crucial role music plays in nearly every human endeavor of meaning making, whether in rituals of worship, political activism, or nation building. At other moments I wonder if it’s possible to be too methodologically correct.


Stewart’s choice to pair Dylan’s story with John Lennon’s is richly rewarded in Chapter 3 of the book, on the “anti-war protest music” written and performed by both songwriters. The comparative examination of Dylan’s songwriting alongside Lennon provides a more comprehensive view of how activist audiences in the 60s and 70s interacted with pop music than an exclusive focus on a single artist could provide. Stewart draws heavily on the findings of sociologist R. Serge Denisoff to frame his study of transformations in the protest song. Writing in the late 60s, Denisoff observed that the traditional “rhetorical” protest song that described social injustice with the aim of moving listeners first to indignation and then to action was slowly being eclipsed by what he labeled as “songs of symbolic introspective protest,” coming from commercial pop musicians (29). At the beginning of his career, Bob Dylan proudly positioned himself outside the world of commercial pop music: “(w)hat comes out of my music is a call to action,” he defiantly declares in a 1963 interview with the radical newspaper National Guardian. Nevertheless, many of Dylan’s signature songs from this era – “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side,” and perhaps most notably “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” – fit comfortably within Denisoff’s category of the rhetorical protest song that “describe a problem but offer no solutions” (37). When Dylan’s lyrics become richer in symbolism and imagery, it becomes more difficult to connect his social critique with a call to action; as Stewart succinctly puts it, “(t)he more powerful Dylan’s images, the more they obscured any political significance” (41). Songs like “A Hard Rain” already bear within them the seeds of even more introspective songs of revolt, like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Gates of Eden,” as well as songs from Dylan’s rock era including “Tombstone Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” that seem to be protesting the very idea of order or hierarchy. Like the 19th-century symbolist poets that Dylan had begun to read, the lyrics of these songs are both evocative and largely self-referential, existing in their own hermetically sealed universe of meaning.


As Stewart observes, Lennon’s mid-60s Beatle songs such as “The Word” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” that present love itself as a “gesture of abstract introspective protest” (49) are impossible to imagine without the precedent of Dylan’s own refashioning of the protest song as symbolist introspection. Dylan and Lennon are arguably the chief co-creators of a new genre of protest song that purposely collapsed the boundaries that traditionally separated introspection from social struggle.


Perhaps the central reason why Stewart’s “parallel lives” approach works so well in this instance is because reality seems to have conspired on the historian’s behalf to add a fair share of dramatic irony to the story. Stewart’s chapter begins with Dylan’s reinvention of the protest song and continues with an examination of Lennon’s own contributions to introspective protest songwriting. However, having donned the mantle of pop music activist, Lennon would be roundly criticized by fans and critics alike for Some Time in New York City (1972), a double album full of protest songs explicitly targeting social injustices of the day, including the Troubles in Ireland and the Attica Prison Riot, with a bare minimum of personal “introspection.” Stewart neatly sums up the response: “(t)he visceral reaction to (Lennon’s record) demonstrated the impossibility of presenting a collection of old fashioned magnetic compositions to an audience more familiar with 1960s rhetorical or introspective styles” (59). While Dylan spent most of the late 1960s distancing himself from the role of “spokesman for a generation,” Lennon, relocating with Yoko Ono to Greenwich Village in late 1971 where he became fast friends with counterculture activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, seemed eager to assume the role that Dylan had abandoned. This was not mere presumption on the part of a Beatle: Lennon’s 1969 song “Give Peace a Chance” was both a chart success as a single and enthusiastically adopted by activists at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, the largest mass demonstration ever held in the US at that time. An audience that had gratefully learned their new aesthetic of protest music from Lennon and Dylan now firmly rejected Lennon the political spokesperson. Nearly 50 years later, pop songwriters still struggle to negotiate the conflicting demands that Dylan and Lennon faced when they attempted to address the social problems of their day in song, often relying on the same artistic formula of “introspective protest” that the two songwriters fashioned in the 60s.


Stewart’s dual biographical approach is less rewarding, however, when it comes to establishing “just how deeply nineteenth century traditions influenced their worldviews” (1987). Stewart presents compelling evidence to suggest this is the case with Lennon, whose imaginative investment in Victorian words and images dominates his songwriting contributions to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), especially in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Alternately, Lennon’s 1967 song “I Am the Walrus” repurposes the linguistic mischief of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll in order to launch a full-bore attack on English institutions in post-imperial decline. In Stewart’s chapter on “Bob Dylan and History,” he mounts a similar case for Dylan, providing a genealogy for the singer’s moral intransigence as evidenced by his early 60s protest music that dates back to the 19th-century Transcendentalist writers. Stewart also traces Dylan’s highly developed rural imaginary and acute sensitivity to the natural world back to Transcendentalist sources. Stewart is a fine writer and the chapter more than establishes his skills both as a researcher and an adept summarizer of his findings: still, the account of Dylan’s 19th-century backstory feels a bit like a data dump. With the obvious exception of Walt Whitman, the chain of correspondences that Stewart constructs in the chapter are finally more exhausting than enlightening.


Stewart saves his most provocative and challenging argument for his final chapter, a detailed account of Dylan and Lennon’s evolving ideas on God and religion. The bedrock of the chapter is Stewart’s firm conviction that evolutionary psychology has decisively solved the riddle of consciousness. Emotional human experiences including religious belief are now “fully accountable by the basic constituents of brain matter”; as Thomson and Aukofer confidently assert, “We are risen apes, not fallen angels – and we now have the evidence to prove it” (148). Given Stewart’s beliefs, it’s no surprise that his account of Dylan and Lennon’s religious idealism has a slightly clinical air. At times the chapter reads like an inventory of latent mental pathologies: Stewart seems duty-bound to catalog the many and various cognitive errors Dylan and Lennon committed over the course of a lifetime. The sad history of their category mistakes begins when they are still young men. Like many of their 1960s contemporaries, Stewart notes, both artists “attributed extraordinary properties to the altered mental states generated by meditation, flights of the imagination, chemical stimulation or various forms of cognitive impairment” (149). As readers of the Dylan Review doubtless know, and as Stewart duly chronicles, Dylan’s shaky grasp of the materialist world-view never really improves; and as Stewart also demonstrates, the same can be said about Lennon, despite the popular image of the secularist projected by the lyrics to his legacy-anthem, “Imagine.”


Even before Dylan’s evangelical awakening, the songwriter looked for purposes and patterns in the sublunar world: or as Stewart puts it, demonstrated a marked propensity to “(ascribe) meaning to random events” (171). As many passages in Dylan’s Chronicles attest, the songwriter remains a strong believer in intuition, what Stewart terms in one sub-section of the chapter, “Hyperactive Agency Attribution” (157). As Stewart details in an analysis of the “mind-body dualism” so prominent in Dylan’s songwriting, Dylan never really stood a chance: he was born in error. A suspect mind-body dualism permeates all his cultural influences as a young man, from his family’s Judaism to the Christian schools he attended in Hibbing, Minnesota, to the Mississippi Delta Blues music that stirred and shaped his musical sensibilities, and that is also prominent in the work of his chief literary heroes, William Blake and the Beats.


That said, despite Stewart’s convictions about consciousness, he provides a remarkably generous and sensitive account of Dylan’s religious journey. He offers evidence that substantiates Michael Gray’s contention that what appeared to the singer’s mass audience to be a sudden religious conversion was, in a phrase Stewart borrows from William James, a “volitional” spiritual experience: one more step in a series of incremental acts of assent to religious belief that date back to Dylan’s first divorce (175). Unlike the static account of Dylan’s historical consciousness presented in the “Dylan and History” chapter, Stewart’s insights on the singer’s faith journey are original enough to set future research agendas for scholars.


To give just one example: Stewart is one of the few scholars to have noticed that Dylan’s Christian faith resulted in a radically different attitude to studio recording and record producers. Along with the “Old Adam,” the songwriter deliberately cast off the rough and ready approach to studio recording he had maintained throughout his career, regardless of the backing musicians he used. As Stewart observes, for most of his career Dylan worked “as quickly as possible to capture the feel of a song even at the expense of audio or technical fidelity” (177). However, the singer sought the help of celebrated producer and recording engineers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett to record his Gospel music albums, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), and worked alongside a stellar group of musicians to craft “unexpectedly meticulous recordings.” Not only is Dylan’s new-found commitment to high fidelity recording “unexpected,” it is arguably unprecedented, fully as “shocking” as his sudden conversion; John Wesley Harding (1968), recorded as Stewart notes, “in just twelve hours with an out of tune acoustic guitar and no overdubs” is atypical but far closer to Dylan’s “norm” for studio performance (141). The recording process for Shot of Love (1981), the final album in the so-called “Gospel Trilogy,” was much more contentious than was the case with the previous two records, with Dylan assuming his old assertive role in the studio process, hiring and discarding different record producers, and rejecting co-producer Chuck Plotkin’s final mixes of the album’s songs. Still, the singer’s paramount concern with getting the sound of the record right substantiates Stewart’s claim that Dylan’s new religious convictions also transformed his studio aesthetic. Dylan’s search for spiritual authenticity apparently led him to embrace the artifice of studio recording, or at the very least, take the studio process more seriously than he had before. Much more can be said about this fascinating paradox.


Although Stewart’s concerns for methodological correctness sometimes result in missteps, Dylan, Lennon, Marx, and God will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of Dylan’s political and religious ideas. As a compendium, the study provides an especially useful introduction for those who want to know more about Dylan’s art and career, but it also contains insights to inspire seasoned scholars and Dylanologists to take a fresh look at their subject. The dual focus on Dylan and Lennon makes it especially valuable for anyone interested in learning more about the production and reception of 1960s popular music and its relation to the politics, back in the day when rock music was pop music.

Larry Starr. Listening to Bob Dylan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. 136 pp.

REVIEW BY David R. Shumway, Carnegie Mellon University


Larry Starr has written a book that should engage Dylan fans and scholars and surprise many in both categories. Starr’s premise is that Dylan has been regarded “primarily or even exclusively as a poet, or as a writer of lyrics,” and he proposed to attend to Dylan’s music as represented on his recordings (2). He claims, “Dylan’s art achieves its total impact as a complete package – as a personal, unique synthesis of words, music, and performance,” and he rejects the notion that Dylan is best understood as a mere songwriter, because he is also the performer of his own songs (2). If it weren’t for the way in which those songs were arranged, produced, and sung, would anyone be listening to them?


The notion that Dylan’s music needs to be understood as a complete package is entirely persuasive, yet Starr’s claim that Dylan is understood mainly as a poet or lyricist seems to me greatly overstated. The one bit of evidence offered is that he won the Nobel Prize in literature, which at best explains how a small committee of Swedes understood him. It may be true that in the world at large some significant number of people think of Dylan primarily as the writer of lyrics, but they would not be Dylan fans, scholars, or popular music journalists, who, of course, are the natural audience for this book.


What is original about Starr’s book is not that he deals with Dylan’s records rather than his lyrics, but rather that he applies a formal analysis to Dylan’s oeuvre. Others have explored Dylan’s recordings in some detail. Greil Marcus, for example, does this in both The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. A weakness of Listening to Bob Dylan is that it lacks citations, so the uninformed reader might never know, for example, that Marcus has already provided a very similar treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone.” What distinguishes Starr from Marcus and most others who have written about Dylan is that their analysis has been primarily concerned with the question of the records’ meaning, while his is concerned with how they work.


Popular music writing has traditionally been short of formalist analysis. Simon Frith memorably observed this in Sound Effects when he compared a musicological analysis of an Animals hit to an account by the songwriter entirely devoid of formalist language. The point is that neither pop music fans nor pop music writers have traditionally relied on formalist terms and categories in their experience and understanding of records. Fans and journalists tend to focus on the music’s emotional effects and cultural significance, and to invoke only a relatively limited range of aesthetic descriptors. That these descriptors have proved adequate does not, however, rule out the possibility that more detailed and precise accounts have something to offer.


Larry Starr’s book shows that for Dylan, careful formalist analysis is in fact enlightening. It is important to note that only a small part of this analysis is narrowly musicological, most of which is found in the two chapters on Dylan as a composer. Other chapters focus on such topics as vocal style, instrumentation, the harmonica, album arrangement, and live performance. Most of these chapters add significant depth to our understanding of Dylan’s music and often provide helpful new terms and categories that may well become the basis for further work by other critics.


As an example, consider Starr’s assertion that “You’re a Big Girl Now” from Blood on the Tracks is a song “in which the music is the most interesting aspect of the whole. . . . The lyrics to the song . . . are essentially a collection of clichés” (5). What makes the song work, according to Starr, is its use of two unexpected chords, one because of its relation to the home key of the instrumental introduction and the other because of its relation to the vocal melody. These musical choices establish an emotional tone that is appropriate to the lyrics, which deal with the experience of being dumped. One could quibble with Starr’s characterization of the lyrics, since he himself observes that Dylan intends a number of the clichés ironically, but he is convincing that the music allows the irony to work.


There are equally compelling insights to be had throughout the book. Starr’s classification of Dylan’s vocal styles provides a useful basis for talking about the singer’s enormously inventive range of vocal performance, and he ties these styles to Dylan’s pattern of inhabiting different personas or masks. The discussions of Dylan as a composer call attention to features of his songs that tend to get ignored because attention is more often focused on lyrical meaning and vocal performance. The importance of rhythm, for example, in Dylan’s songs is convincingly illustrated in discussion of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which shows that the ingenuity of the song’s phrasing is a matter of composition rather than performance “because it remains a pattern that governs the entire five-stanza song” (61). And Starr isn’t exclusively concerned with the strictly musical features of the songs. In the second chapter on composition, he focuses on the formal aspects of Dylan’s lyrics in relation to the music in a discussion of “strophic form,” wherein “a unit of music is used repeatedly for successive stanzas of lyrics” (65). Later in the chapter he takes up Dylan’s use of verse-chorus structures and of bridges. This makes us aware that most writing about Dylan’s lyrics has been so focused on interpretation that it has ignored their formal features.


Listening to Bob Dylan is an important addition to the critical literature about this great artist. Not the least of the book’s value is that it can make listening to Dylan even more pleasurable. And, you might want to carry it around with you, ready to hand it to the next person who tells you Dylan can’t sing or that his songs aren’t musical.

Sara Danius. Om Bob Dylan. Stockholm, Sweden: Albert Bonnier Förlag, 2018. 104 pp.

REVIEW BY Karl Gustel Wärnberg, Leiden University


Bob Dylan is a unique phenomenon. He is the only artist to have won a Grammy, an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize. The latter was not uncontroversial. When it was announced by the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, that Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, the world held its breath in shock, gasped out of surprise, let out a gleeful cheer, and then scratched its head wondering if it had in fact heard the correct name. In her book Om Bob Dylan (On Bob Dylan), Danius reflects on this momentous time in history.


Danius begins her reflections on Dylan by describing another Nobel Prize laureate. Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the prize in medicine the same year as Dylan was awarded the prize in literature. Ohsumi studied how cells reproduce themselves, multiplying by killing off the old. Danius jokingly compares this cellular process to Dylan’s career, except the joke is only a half joke. Her point is that Dylan holds within himself an entire tradition, ranging from Petrarch, to Shakespeare, through Rimbaud, all the way to Lorca. Dylan creates something new from the old, which Danius describes by stating that “Bob Dylan is an indefatigable archivist of history, a stubborn traditionalist, and simultaneously an artist who never stops reinventing himself. He appears again and again in surprising guises.” A slightly forced comparison, one might think, but the point comes across.


The book contains many similarly forced comparisons but reads well in general. It is short and flows steadily, more like an extended essay or reflection than a book. It is clearly written by a fan who is also trying to be funny and occasionally provocative. Writing this kind of book is hard to do because who does one write it for? Is it aimed at convincing those who don’t already believe Dylan should have won the prize, or at those who already love Dylan and believe in his literary genius? Danius pitches the book in the middle ground, meaning skeptics can find arguments as to why he is given such an elevated position in the literary canon, and long-time fans might discover previously unknown details about Dylan’s Swedish reception. Although Danius provides some refutation to questions about whether Dylan deserves the prize, her book is not a polemic, and she shrugs off skepticism by stating that his prize is not actually controversial, but well-deserved. It might strike some as elitist, maybe even as a sidestepping the issue, but the book has wider aims and provides insight to the process of awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize, for which Danius provides references to other books, such as Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin.


As Danius makes clear, Dylan is an artist whom many love to hate, and others hate to love for the sheer energy it takes to immerse oneself in his music and words. The hours spent listening to the words as they speak through time can be exhausting. And on top of it all is a shrill voice in the early years, and a whiskey-induced rasp in later years. But Danius says this is exactly why Dylan’s cult status endures. His voice, like it or not, is unmistakable, and it doesn’t matter whether one likes it. If there was a museum of historic voices, argues Danius, Dylan would have a natural place in it. None of this will surprise Dylan enthusiasts, though the book is not primarily or solely written for them.


Danius could have engaged more of her own thoughts on Dylan, which she sometimes begins to do but fails to reach her destination. As a reader, I thought she would say more, given her prestigious place in Swedish cultural society and her background as a well-known literary critic, who dedicated much work to the American tradition. Danius’s book partially aims to tell us why Dylan won the prize, but this fact is connected to his qualities as an artist. Dylan won the prize for literature, yet his voice is the vehicle through which the words reach us. There is surely much more to be discussed about the relation between Dylan’s lyrics and his performance or embodiment of them.


The former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy goes on to say that, based on these reflections, many thought that the Academy’s decision was rather bold and risky. How could a musician, and one that is often criticized even as a musician, win the Nobel Prize in Literature? The criticism should not be exaggerated, she writes. Concentrating on Sweden, Danius shows how Dylan was received favorably even in the earliest days of his career, recalling the interest and conflicts surrounding Dylan’s first visit to the country. In the spring of 1966, Göran Printz-Påhlson wrote an article for Dagens Nyheter – one of Sweden’s leading daily newspapers – where he argued that Dylan is a poet who can be read just like any other poet. The following year, a magazine tied to Bonnier, one of the largest publishing houses in Sweden, printed an article that also argued that Dylan was a poet. This article, in turn, was commented on in Dagens Nyheter, where Torsten Ekbom argued that Dylan was a champion of ‘New Poetry’, alongside artists like Frank Zappa and Ed Sanders. Old poetry was dead.


That same year, 1966, the bard visited Sweden himself. He came on a tour, captured in photographs taken by Björn Larsson Ask. Sweden was known for its old-fashioned style: jacket and tie. When Dylan arrived at the airport, journalists waited in great excitement for the global star who trailed The Beatles and Swedish folk music legend Cornelis Vreeswijk in the national charts. Dylan finally showed up, no tie, sporting large curly hair and sunglasses. He held a press conference, which left everyone irate. It was clear that the press didn’t know much about Dylan, and they asked all sorts of strange questions, writes Danius. For example, they claimed not to have listened to his music, yet they proceeded to ask him about the songs. After his concert he is reported to have turned to Swedish journalist Annette Kullenberg and said, “they like me better now, don’t they?” Many of the journalists were probably not very well acquainted with Dylan, Danius muses, and his nonchalance struck the buttoned-up Swedes as insulting. A dose of Nordic skepticism, then, tempered the Swedish critics’ early praise.


Danius also takes us behind the scenes of the Nobel Prize announcement, half-a-century after Dylan’s first visit. Stating that you shouldn’t always believe the media, she welcomes us into the story from the inside. Yet, the story is retold by Danius, a member of the Swedish Academy, just before the Swedish Academy entered a crisis with disputes between its members not seen since its founding in the 18th century. In 2018, the husband of one of the Academicians was first accused, and later found guilty, of harassment; public perception was that the Academy handled the situation poorly. The controversy split the Academy into two camps as to how to relate to the accused party, who was a high-ranking personality in Swedish culture. Several members resigned, and a fellow member wrote an op-ed in a Swedish daily claiming Danius was the worst permanent secretary the Swedish Academy had ever had. Danius’s account, then, becomes even more valuable, as she found herself in the eye of two storms: the harassment scandal, and the Dylan announcement. As Danius herself puts it, her book exists only ‘for the record,’ and it is worth considering that the Swedish Academy very rarely has to justify its decisions to the extent that it did with Dylan. The Academy usually delivers a sentence or two explaining why they have chosen that year’s laureate, whereas in this case they found themselves defending their decision in the press.


While Om Bob Dylan will go down in history as an explanation and justification of what for many was a controversial decision, unlike perhaps any other in the Academy’s century-long history, the content itself is not hugely surprising. Much of what it contains was already known to the public, and what the Academicians discussed behind locked doors leading up to the final vote is not disclosed. It would be fascinating to hear what some of the world’s most erudite people say about Dylan when the microphones are off, although this information is safeguarded under a veil of secrecy and will perhaps never be disclosed in full. In this sense, Danius heightens expectations, only to burst them with triviality, despite teasing some interesting historic trivia about Dylan’s visits to, and reception in, Sweden.


On the morning of October 13, 2016, no culture journalists speculated about Dylan as a potential laureate. His name had been brought up a few times as a potential laureate in previous years, but not this time. At 11:30am the Swedish Academy awarded Dylan the prize, with a broad majority. The reason? Dylan is a poet of the highest caliber. According to Danius, he works in the English-speaking tradition going back to Milton, via Blake, and going past Rimbaud in France. She adds that he also stands in a great oral tradition from the blues in the American South, and the folk music in the Appalachian Mountains. The analysis Danius provides in the book is not unique. In one sense, it is hard to be unique, given the many volumes of scholarship that have already been dedicated to his oeuvre. It is surprising, however, because Danius spent almost a decade in America, studying modernism and literature. Her doctoral dissertation was titled The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Modernist Aesthetics (1997) and she worked in UCLA and the Getty Research Institute. Feminism, via Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, has characterized much of her work. This book only shows a few signs of her literary research and feminist point of view, which she applies to the Swedish Academy stating that the Academy is a “she.” This seems a rather pointed statement, given that many of the male members had been accused by the public of creating – or trying to retain – a sort of “macho-culture” within the Academy. Despite her learning, when it comes to analysis of Dylan, she seems to rely on previous scholarship rather than providing what could be her unique perspective.


At 1pm – an hour and a half after Danius made her announcement – she began trying to get in touch with Dylan, something which proved more difficult than she thought. Many in the public were furious. She received angry emails criticizing the decision, but many others rejoiced over the widening definition of literature. In fact, as Danius’s colleague Horace Engdahl pointed out in his moving speech during the Nobel ceremony, Dylan takes us back to an original understanding of literature, where words are meant to be sung and not merely spoken. Engdahl asked: “What brings about the great shifts in the world of literature?” His answer is that often “it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the higher sense, and makes it mutate.”


Finally reaching Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, Danius received a message saying, “We’re thrilled over here!” Naturally, the message crossed the Atlantic and traveled all over the world. In the following weeks, there was much talk about Dylan’s potential skipping out on the Nobel ceremony, which he eventually did. Danius says this criticism is unjustified, and she spends several pages telling the story of how Samuel Beckett refused to show up at the ceremony. She says Beckett was in his right not to attend the ceremony, and so is Dylan, while adding that Dylan may not be the last. It is not a condition to receiving the prize. Yet, Dylan is no Beckett: he is a rockstar, as well as a writer. Dylan was about to go on tour, and it is hard not to get cynical and think the aged Swedish Academicians wanted to spend their time with a rock ’n’ roll hall of famer. Again, Danius says this is untrue and argues that the media criticism was wildly exaggerated. For example, it was stated that the Academy was angry with Dylan for refusing to commit to showing up. It was said that they found him “impolite and arrogant.” With such statements, we are back to his 1960s visit to Sweden. However, the Academician who had accused Dylan of arrogance was speaking as an individual, and not as a member of the Academy. The story was buried and twelve days later Danius had Dylan on the phone.


“I feel so very, very, honored. I don’t know what to say – I’m speechless. But I want to … truly … thank you. It’s a great honor. I can’t find the words.” Those were the words of Dylan to Danius, on Tuesday, October 25, 2016. Danius says she could hardly believe her ears. She could not get confirmation if Dylan would visit Sweden, but a few days later that came as well. He wouldn’t be able to on account of his tour. She soon felt relieved that he couldn’t come. Sure, she writes, it would have been fantastic if he came, but it would also have been a lot of work. It wasn’t until April 2017 that Dylan set on foot in Sweden again. He was there for his planned tour, performing at Stockholm Waterfront. On April 1, April Fool’s Day, Dylan visited the Swedish Academy. It was only him and the members of the Academy. No photographers and no journalists were invited. Danius was busy speaking to a colleague when an odd figure appeared through the doors. It was Dylan. He seemed nervous and shy, she recalls. They delivered the medal, 18 carat gold with 25 carat gold-plating, engraved with an inscription from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dylan recognized it immediately, laughed and spoke to the members of the Academy for a few minutes, then left.


Danius’ book is a recollection of Dylan’s reception in Sweden, a description of his genius, and an intimate narrative of the controversies surrounding his nomination and reception of the Nobel Prize, dispelling many of the rumors. Danius is a controversial figure in Sweden; she was vocal in the #MeToo movement, which shook the Academy some years after Dylan’s prize. Her book is indeed a valuable record of the events leading up to and through Dylan’s Nobel sojourn, and it is surely one which will be of value to historians in decades to come. Yet, it remains her version of turbulent times, and as she remarks, she was often tired and overwhelmed by events. The most valuable thing with the book is her reminder that no matter what, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature belongs solely to Bob Dylan.