Bob Dylan. Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.

REVIEW by Nathan Schmidt, Indiana University Bloomington

“Someday, everything is going to be beautiful / When I paint my masterpiece.”

Is there a clearer expression of an artist’s highest aspiration? “When I finish this great work I have started, everything is going to be beautiful. The world will feel right with itself.” These lines from Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” put me in mind of Don Quixote’s impossible dream of a fantastic world, endlessly romantic, forever deferred. As Dylan’s song reminds us, in some ways this goal is most compelling when it is furthest out of reach, or when something like a global pandemic disrupts the cycles of artistic production. “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” even though it may not be the most well-known song in Dylan’s repertoire, is a compelling opener for his concert film, Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan. The song had already undergone a handful of lyric changes between its first release, on 1971’s Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, and the version on Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-71); in the first version, Dylan has a date with “a pretty little girl from Greece,” while in the second, his date is with “Botticelli’s niece,” emphasizing his off-kilter sense of humor. Tellingly, in the Shadow Kingdom version, no one else is there at all: “Gonna lock the doors and turn my back on the world for a while / I’ll stay right there ‘til I paint my masterpiece.” Even though Dylan’s music maintains a reputation for being timeless, it would seem that not even he has remained immune to the sense of isolation and anxiety that accompanies pandemic-era life, even if the new lyrics make it sound like turning his back on the world is the artist’s own choice. Where other artists frequently take time during a livestream to address the audience directly, grappling with how strange it is to be playing to no one and everyone at once, Dylan puts it right there in the lyrics to his opening song: the Grecian girls and Botticelli’s relations are gone, in favor of contemplative silence and solitude.

I could be wrong, but the strong impression that I take from the lyrics is that this masterpiece is never going to actually get painted. Like the elusive life-changing moment in Henry James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” the masterpiece is always the next thing to happen, the artist’s forthcoming statement. However, I am willing to concede that in Shadow Kingdom Dylan comes about as close to the opening song’s hypothetical masterpiece as anyone would dare. The film was released on July 18, 2021 on Veeps, a streaming platform specifically for musical performances. The first announcement of the event prompted broad speculation about what it would be, since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had kept Dylan from sharing the songs from his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways on his Never Ending Tour. All these years into his career, though, nobody knows what Bob Dylan is going to do next, and it is hard to imagine anyone logging in to the stream without feeling a little surprised. The trailer for the concert featured Dylan singing “Watching the River Flow,” which was recorded during the same session as “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and has nothing to do with Rough and Rowdy Ways; Shadow Kingdom turned out to be a set of stripped-down versions of songs that were originally recorded between 1965 and 1989 and were re-recorded for this black and white concert film. Rather than simply streaming a live performance of the songs, Dylan and his co-creators spent a week recording the music ahead of time and turning the performance into a dreamlike piece of cinema.

Upon release, Shadow Kingdom garnered favorable comparisons to the work of the American auteur David Lynch. For one thing, Shadow Kingdom repeatedly employs the motif of a checkerboard tiled floor, which will be familiar to fans of Lynch’s Twin Peaks as the setting for the liminal place known as the Black Lodge. Rather than emphasizing the fact that a streamed show like this plays to everyone and no one, Dylan leaned into the fact that it could be happening anywhere—or nowhere. The closing credits thank “The Bon Bon Club in Marseille,” which is definitely a fictional place, masking the fact that the film was shot in Santa Monica. The interior of the so-called Bon Bon Club shares some aesthetic resonances with the Roadhouse, the famous bar in which many of Twin Peaks’s most memorable moments take place. At the Roadhouse, and at the Bon Bon Club, the music seems to simply “happen” to the patrons. In these fictional worlds, maybe people are there to see it on purpose, or maybe people are just there to have a good time and listen to the house band play, but the music asserts itself as a fundamental part of the space that draws everyone together under its spell. In Shadow Kingdom’s bluesy, danceable version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” two women from the audience stand next to Dylan, nearly motionless, simply staring into the camera; this particularly Lynchian move draws viewers in and estranges them at the same time, which essentially describes the whole experience of watching Shadow Kingdom. Both the Bon Bon Club and the Roadhouse draw upon an almost Gothic sense of placelessness to emphasize that the music is not taking place anywhere that is supposed to emulate a real-world bar or club. Rather, both venues are the dive bar that we carry in our heads, the gently unsettling heaven that Dylan and his fans might go to when we pass beyond this mortal coil, where a melancholy glance over a bottle of something inexpensive is always a little hazy with cigarette smoke, soundtracked by a twangy guitar. Watching Shadow Kingdom is like listening to the band in heaven playing your favorite song in a place where nothing else ever happens, as David Byrne put it in the Talking Heads song “Heaven.”

The powerful, trance-inducing cinematography of Shadow Kingdom is the work of director Alma Har’el, joined by producers Christopher Leggett and Rafael Marmor, who worked both on Shadow Kingdom and on Har’el’s feature-length debut, Honey Boy. Har’el’s distinctive style and interest in the borders between dream and reality come through clearly in Honey Boy, especially in scenes depicting motorcycle rides and movie sets, but the clearest precedents for her work on Shadow Kingdom are in her two music videos. Her visual accompaniments for “Fjögur Píanó” by the Icelandic new age/post-rock band Sigur Rós, and “Elephant Gun” by the freewheeling indie band Beirut, both rely on surreal imagery and imaginary locations to represent the emotional heart of the songs in question. “Fjögur Píanó” stars Shia LaBeouf and Denna Thomsen on a psychosexual journey in a hotel room with walls covered in mounted butterflies, while “Elephant Gun” features Beirut singer Zach Condon singing and playing his way through a tusk-themed masquerade party. Both shorts imagine music as something otherworldly, intangible, and a little bit dangerous; something that stretches the boundaries of the mundane world to their breaking point. Shadow Kingdom is a little more laid back than Har’el’s other work, but it still emphasizes music’s ability to transport us from the everyday to a place with a dense internal logic of its own.

The film opens with a harmonica that nobody is playing. This is easy to see, because all of the band members but Dylan are wearing matching black masks that cover their mouths and noses, and Dylan is playing the guitar without wearing a harmonica—a sly suggestion that, right from the beginning, the viewer is not about to see a performance of “live” music in any traditional sense of the word. Har’el, Dylan, and the band engage playfully the various performative aspects that pandemic-era artists have used to make a live streamed show feel like a live show by, in a literal sense, staging everything. Even the music that the band appears to perform is not actually being created at that moment, but is a pantomime of something already played. The film embraces this performativity without trying to hide it, showing a guitarist’s hands playing different notes from what the viewer hears and refusing to put microphones in front of anyone but Dylan. Rather than asking the audience to accept what is happening on screen as a substitute for a live concert experience, Shadow Kingdom demands to be seen for what it is—not a concert, but a film that refuses to pretend it is anything other than scripted and staged.

This stylization extends all the way to the masks worn by the band members. In the world of the film, these masks represent not just public health but artistic choice. The title Shadow Kingdom seems to most likely be a reference to a short story by pulp fantasy author Robert E. Howard, best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Before Conan, there was Kull, the Atlantean king of Valusia, whose court is set upon by shape-shifters that in their natural state take the form of reptilian humanoids. The story shares the masculinist tropes and crassly romanticized primitivism of its pulp counterparts, and it has unfortunately become the backbone of a pernicious real-world conspiracy theory. However, at the center of Howard’s story is an idea about masks, and how humans hide behind them even when there are no imaginary snake-people underneath. “After all,” the story says, “the priests of the Serpent went a step further in their magic, for all men wore masks, and many a different mask with each different man or woman; and Kull wondered if a serpent did not lurk under every mask.” As in the film Shadow Kingdom, the boundaries between reality and impossibility are blurred, leaving Kull to make his best guess about what is real and what has been cleverly disguised.

This motif of masks that both obscure the wearer and reveal a deeper truth has appeared many other times in Dylan’s career, too. In his 1964 performance on Halloween night in New York, he told the audience that he had his “Bob Dylan mask on,” that he was simply “in masquerade.” Dylan also painted himself up in whiteface for the tour that was represented in Martin Scorcese’s film Rolling Thunder Revue, and it is easy to see the Shadow Kingdom stage as the inverse of the stage on the Rolling Thunder tour, with the performers, rather than Dylan, playing with their faces obscured. He called his critically polarizing 2003 film with Larry Charles Masked and Anonymous, and he even penned that film under the pseudonym “Sergei Petrov.” Dylan, in other words, has spent decades thinking about masks and their symbolism, about alter-egos and the meaning of performance. Therefore, although I would have expected for the performers to be wearing masks in the first place, they also become a symbol for the strange new Shadow Kingdom in which we have learned to live alongside each other over the past two years. Since none of this is real, Shadow Kingdom’s masked band and unmasked audience members signify the duality of the way things are and the way they used to be, the musicians outfitted with a symbol of the present, while the audience calls us back to a past that is now only possible on a closed movie set for a concert that was recorded ahead of time. Most of us may have gotten used to wearing masks in public, but Dylan’s film asks for the audience to reflect on what the “new normal” reveals about ourselves and each other. Do we ever really know who is behind that covered face? On the other hand, as Dylan said in the similarly reality-blurring Rolling Thunder Revue, “When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth,” so it may be that the Shadow Kingdom invented by the film is meant to be truer to life than the everyday world and the interpretive baggage we carry into it.

Throughout the film, the audience gets a number of different views of the Bon Bon Club, with the band stationed in different places and shot from different angles to the degree that it becomes difficult to imagine it all as a single contained space. These cinematic choices make the club feel tiny and gigantic at the same time, although a handful of recurring visual motifs tie the room together (as noted Dylan aficionados the Coen brothers might say). A dusty air conditioning unit with small colorful streamers blowing out of it makes an appearance in a number of shots, and almost every shot is dominated by clouds of cigarette smoke, except for the three songs on which the fifteen-person “audience” does not appear. Some songs are shot with the camera focused only on the band, while others are so far away from the stage that members of the audience frequently walk in front of the camera, obscuring the view of the stage. This audience, which like the Shadow Kingdom band is relatively young and racially diverse, is outfitted with clothing both nostalgic and timeless, in simple but elegant summer dresses or in jackets and fedoras—a look just dusty enough to avoid mobster movie pastiche, put together by Natasha Newman-Thomas, who also designed the outfits in the powerful and inescapable music video for Childish Gambino’s song “This Is America.” The film’s aesthetic hinges on its ability to fabricate an audience and a concert that takes place, not in any particular club or dive bar, but in a place that tantalizes the imagination of a viewer who is longing to enjoy live music again. On the other hand, the aspects of the place that feel unhinged from time and space echo the feeling of spending yet another day in limbo inside my house, unable to remember what day of the week it is.

As a cinematic work, Shadow Kingdom is by turns haunting and mesmerizing. Musically, it reproduces a particular era in Dylan’s sound, but mellows it out with new arrangements that are better suited to its imaginary setting. The new, mostly acoustic arrangements rely heavily on acoustic guitar and mandolin, with the occasional fill or flourish on the electric guitar, while the rhythm is mostly carried by a double bass and an accordion, although an electric bass also makes an appearance. Dylan brought together a world-class group of young musicians for this performance, including Alex Burke, bassists Janie Cowen and Joshua Crumbly, Buck Meek, who released a solo album this year and also plays in the indie rock band Big Thief, and multi- instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. The musicians trade roles throughout the set, and it can be difficult to parse who is playing what at any given time, especially because of the masks that obscure the performers’ faces. Dylan appears to play the acoustic guitar and the harmonica on a few of the pieces, departing from the piano which has been his staple on his most recent tours, although the suspended reality of the set allows room for ambiguity around whose strumming is actually being heard. His vocal performance is one of the best that he has given in years, ranging from a gruff roar on “Watching the River Flow” to a restrained simmer on “What Was It You Wanted?”

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is both the aesthetic and the musical introduction to the show, with the camera focusing on Dylan and his guitar while lights from behind him provide a muted bokeh effect in grayscale. The rest of the musicians are mostly off camera, apart from a glimpse of an accordion and a mandolin, while two seated audience members smoke and sway to the music in their seats. No one touches the upturned hat and half-finished drink on the table next to Dylan, making it seem as if a mysterious figure perched just outside the frame has already settled in and made themselves comfortable. Har’el’s restrained camera work makes for relatively few changes in visual perspective during the songs, which, although the film is heavily stylized, frequently mirrors the experience of sitting still and watching a concert. Title cards between the songs operate as visual transitions between different parts of the set, while the pre-recorded nature of the performance allows the music to flow, for the most part, in an unbroken stream.

The title for Blonde on Blonde’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” appears on the screen for a moment, shorn of its parenthetical phrase, before the band swings into a blues rock groove that maintains the gusto of the original, even in the absence of percussion. Dylan commands the stage, toying with the microphone stand and gesticulating like a street preacher. A sideways shift in camera perspective brings the window of the Bon Bon Club into the frame, its half-closed blinds obscuring the world beyond the fantasy of the set. At times there was so much smoke on the screen that I began to wonder if the cigarettes were props, but I also saw some of the actors inhaling them—the fact that this even crossed my mind suggests how masterfully Shadow Kingdom straddles the boundary between fantasy and realism. At the risk of stirring up intrigue where there may be none, the camera lingers near the end of the song on the back of a seated audience member who I could swear is really a mannequin or a statue.

The next song, Highway 61 Revisted’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” also has its title truncated, in this case down to just “Queen Jane.” The set for this song is the one that most immediately recalls David Lynch, with Dylan off to the side behind an old-fashioned microphone stand and the rest of the band casting shadows across the tiled floor. Even though this is only the third song in the setlist, the absence of the audience makes it feel like a glimpse into an after- hours rehearsal, with Dylan and the band playing together for fun. In its Shadow Kingdom permutation, “Queen Jane” becomes a tender ballad, calmer and more warmhearted than the bouncy, organ-driven original. On the other hand, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (from John Wesley Harding) is no longer a soft country ballad, but a full-on rocker with a bluesy bassline. Two women from the audience stand next to Dylan and stare into the camera, occasionally smiling or brushing his shoulder—the film’s most visually obvious surreal moment so far.

Two other “blues” follow, both from Highway 61 Revisited: “Tom Thumb’s Blues” (no longer “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) and “Tombstone Blues.” “Tom Thumb’s Blues” is jaunty and laid-back, driven by a staccato accordion and a bright, crisp lead on the electric guitar. In contrast to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the camera pivots here to focus on a group of men seated beneath the window at stage left—and, like the women from the previous shot, they carry a strong sense of presence while moving very little. Most of them do not even look directly at Dylan or the band; maybe these characters are tired from a day at work, or perhaps they are letting the music carry them into some personal reverie. I can’t help but wonder how much of this setting is aspirational for Dylan, if there’s some part of him that would like to fade into the background at a tiny club again, in a way that would be impossible for him now in the real world. It’s only at the Bon Bon Club that Bob Dylan gets to be comfortably ignored. “Tombstone Blues” returns to the checker-tiled setting of “Queen Jane,” where Dylan’s singing and the band’s musical accompaniment trade bars in a style reminiscent of call-and-response Gospel.

“Tombstone Blues” is the last Highway 61 Revisited song on the setlist. Dylan follows it up with “To Be Alone with You,” from Nashville Skyline, and “What Was It You Wanted” from Oh Mercy, which, having coming out in 1989, is the newest song to be counted among “the early songs of Bob Dylan.” “To Be Alone with You” gives the viewer a good angle of most of the band, and—if the instruments shown on screen are to be believed—employs three different acoustic guitar parts. Even without the barroom piano, which sits neglected directly behind the band on the stage, this song stays closest to the album rendition fans already know, in a set of songs that take pleasure in drastic changes of mood and tempo from the originals. “What Was It You Wanted,” in the absence of the album version’s driving percussion, becomes a haunting minor-key ballad which Dylan whispers from a stool set up beneath the Bon Bon Club’s decrepit wall-mounted air conditioning unit.

After “What Was It You Wanted” and its lonesome melancholy, “Forever Young” (from 1974’s Planet Waves) comes across a little perfunctory and saccharine—a quality the tinkly dolceola does little to alleviate. It seems well within the realm of possibility that Dylan is being cheeky by staging this one in a dark room with a single spotlight sparkling off of his angel-white suit jacket, holding a guitar that he barely plays, but this performance is difficult to take as seriously as some of the other songs. Fortunately, “Forever Young” is followed by Blonde on Blonde’s “Pledging My Time,” which features some of the film’s strongest music and cinematography. In the world of Shadow Kingdom, “Pledging My Time” becomes a slow dance number that focuses on the crowd in a mode of stately dilapidation, swaying together with beer bottles and cigarettes in hand. As in the rest of the film, the setting is idealized—I have never seen a small club show where people who are inebriated enough to dance with their beer bottles still show the music the kind of respectful attention shown here—but this song showcases most directly the sense of something both staged and incidental that makes the film so special. Streamers and paper chains cover the stage, casting the club in an aura of ramshackle celebration.

The show closes with “Wicked Messenger,” “Watching the River Flow,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (changed to “Baby Blue” on the title card). “Wicked Messenger” (the second song in the set off John Wesley Harding) stands out from the others by shooting the band from a low angle that leaves much of the stage obscured by the audience’s heads, until the electric guitarist steps in front of the camera to deliver the lick that binds the verses together. The guitarist’s interruption weaves something jocular into a song that is otherwise deadly serious. “Watching the River Flow” brings back the blues-rock trappings of the set’s earlier songs, and shows the audience smiling, dancing, and—a first for Shadow Kingdom—applauding at the end. The lines, “Daylight sneaking through the window / And I’m still in this all-night café,” ring especially true on the smoke-obscured stage of the Bon Bon Club, which looks and feels so unmoored from the bonds of time. “Baby Blue” (from Bringing It All Back Home), shot yet again on the set with the checkerboard tiles, slowly and sweetly informs the viewer that “it’s all over now,” as the band strums along quietly just behind the pace of Dylan’s free-flowing lines.

To what extent, then, does Shadow Kingdom represent Bob Dylan’s “early songs?” Chronologically, the claim holds true, with the arguable exception of “What Was It You Wanted.” Many of the songs are from albums released during the years that Greatest Hits: Vol. II spans, from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home to 1969’s Nashville Skyline, and Planet Waves came shortly after, in 1974. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde famously share a related debt to the stylings of rock and blues, although the decade that the songs on Shadow Kingdom span contained more stylistic fluctuations than the film’s cohesiveness is able to convey. Many of these would not be the first to come to mind to viewers mostly acquainted with Dylan’s famous early folk songs—there is no “Girl From the North Country” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” here—but they paint a strong picture of a time when Dylan was experimenting with new worlds of possibility. One particularly striking thing about the arrangements on Shadow Kingdom is how effective they are in the absence of any percussion, even though drums were at the center of almost all the studio versions of these songs. In many cases, what was once jangly and strident has now become comfortably warm, the rough edges polished by time and use to shine anew.

We can only speculate on what led Dylan to make a film of these early songs in 2021, rather than using the songs from the album he had just released in the previous year and never toured behind. Possibly, he wanted to reserve the new songs for new performances in a truly live setting. If I were to wager a guess, though, I would say that Bob Dylan went through something similar to what we all went through in the year 2020 and found himself trying to balance a sense of being unmoored in time with the ruthless particularity of the now. A savvy reader will have already noticed the lyric change in the epigraph above: in all its previous permutations, the last lines of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” have been about how someday everything will be “different.” In this most recent version, Dylan sets his sights even higher. Now, when he finishes his masterpiece, everything will be beautiful. That may be a bit more than any of us would dare to hope for right now, but after spending some time in the Shadow Kingdom, I want him, more than ever, to be right.

Michael Gray. Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021. Route Books (Pontefract, England), 2021, 352 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-1901927-86-3. GBP 20.

Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg

Michael Gray’s place in the history of Bob Dylan Studies is secure. Back in 1972, when the Dylan canon extended no further than New Morning, the first edition of Gray’s trailblazing book Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan appeared as a pioneering manifestation of the literary-critical analysis of Dylan’s lyrics. That book is now almost half a century old. It was followed by a second edition (The Art of Bob Dylan: Song and Dance Man) in 1981, and then in 1999 by a massively expanded third edition (Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan) running to over nine hundred pages. Another mammoth tome, The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia, appeared in 2006, with a second edition in 2008. This new volume is Michael Gray’s first Dylan-themed book since then.

Dylan scholars will shelve Outtakes on Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021 next to Greil Marcus’s similar volume from a decade back, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. Gray’s book consists of reprints of previously uncollected writings including both general pieces and a whole range of text types (album review, concert review, sleevenotes, book preface, newspaper article, music press article, fanzine piece, blurb, blog post, travel piece, and even a conference keynote address). Gray adds some previously unpublished material, stretching across the fifty-four-year period of the title. Some pieces were published in mainstream press organs including Britain’s Times, Guardian, and Independent; others appeared in a range of popular publications or subculture rags. Gray states that wherever possible he has preferred to retain the original versions of his pieces.

Two texts stand out as being much longer than the others. A forty-eight-page study, originally published in a Canadian academic journal, centers on the traditional song “Belle Isle” as covered by Dylan in 1970 on Self Portrait; and the book is brought up to date with the closing piece, a sixty-page analysis of 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways—a study which, apart from putting that album under the microscope, also contains significant observations on more general aspects of Bob Dylan today.

The book opens with an out-of-sequence essay from 1997 titled “Bob Dylan, 1966 & Me”: after that everything is in chronological order, starting in 1967. The texts are footnoted where relevant; there is a bibliography but no index. Fellow critics are given their due for their input into Dylan studies, and there is thus mention of the valuable ideas and work of Stephen Scobie (171, 247), Andrew Muir (245, 289n, 307) and Richard Thomas (317-320 passim), as also of recent material appearing in publications such as the Dylan Review (302n, 317n, 319, 320n) and The Bridge (317). On the matter of quoting Dylan’s songs, Gray, fully aware of “the difficulty of arriving at reliable lyrics to scrutinise” (260), expresses his preference—a position which I share—for taking as the default text for lyric analysis what Dylan sings on the original studio recording. In this context, he more than correctly recalls the unreliability of the various editions of Lyrics (“the official books of lyrics have never been trustworthy” (259)) as well as of what appears on the “so often inaccurate” official website (309); he notes further the disappointingly unsatisfactory character of the Christopher Ricks variorum edition. At the same time, preference for the definitive studio versions does not stop Gray from paying close attention to textual variants where relevant—indeed he does that with panache in a study from 2016 of the different versions of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in the wake of the Cutting Edge (Bootleg Series Vol. 12) box set. Significantly, Gray acknowledges the existence of the Tulsa archive; he has not used it for this book, but he assures us that he looks forward to “being able to research [Dylan’s music] further” in that “immensely rich archive” (12).

Albums given the full-length review treatment include Blood on the Tracks, Christmas in the Heart (received by Gray with surprising enthusiasm), and the tenth volume of the Bootleg Series, Another Self Portrait. There is a jacket blurb to Tarantula from 1971, as well as the sleevenotes for the 2010 heritage release Bob Dylan in Concert – Brandeis University 1963. Unfortunately, Gray’s informative 1989 notes for the various artists compilation of cover versions The Songs of Bob Dylan are not included. There are two contributions to collective volumes: a piece from the multi-author volume from 1980 Conclusions on the Wall, and the foreword to Professing Dylan, a limited-edition academic collection from 2016 (in which, notably, Gray states that “Dylan Studies has become a significant academic industry” [259]). Also featured are a keynote address from an academic conference (Odense, Denmark, 2018), two travel pieces (“In Bob Dylan’s Minnesota Footsteps” and “Ghost Trains in the American South”), and a before-the-event article from 2013 on the Dylan-and-the-Nobel issue. And there is much more, the total number of pieces in the book running to forty-one.

The older texts communicate a boundless enthusiasm for the earlier Dylan on the part of the earlier Michael Gray. In “Bob Dylan, 1966 & Me” Gray tells the tale of how he discovered Dylan and the burgeoning of his interest in his work, paying special attention inter alia to his time as a student at the University of York. This article eulogizes Dylan as “this superlative genius, this pinnacle of 20th-century art-in-action” (18). In a later text that combines three Melody Maker pieces on Dylan’s 1978 London and Paris gigs, he is called “our greatest living artist” (79); and in a 2011 piece published in Japan, “Dylan at 70,” Gray hails him as “the single most important artist in the history of popular music” (233), adding that with Bob Dylan, “popular song . . . could handle all subjects and the whole range of human emotion” (236). In earlier times Gray also saw in Dylan an impeccable live artist, as attested by his laudatory 1978 London/Paris piece and a review from The Independent of a 1988 New York concert.

Throughout the book, Gray singles out one album for particular praise: Blood on The Tracks. The first Song and Dance Man had come out during a hiatus in Dylan’s career: after its appearance came Planet Waves, but Blood on the Tracks relaunched Dylan as a living artist rather than a 60s has-been. Here, Gray reproduces his review as published in April 1975 in the UK magazine Let It Rock. Introducing the text, he retrospectively sees his response as prescient (indeed, the album’s special merit was not immediately discerned by all): “This, the original review, was a rare example of my hearing immediately an album’s significance, which I rarely do and which in this case few critics did till later.” The eulogistic review starts by calling Blood on the Tracks “the most strikingly intelligent album of the seventies” (70) and concludes that “this album is the work of a man who has never been of sharper intelligence . . . His sensibility is 100% intact” (73). Nor has Gray’s enthusiasm for Blood on the Tracks faded over time: in later pieces in the volume Gray calls it “probably the most intelligent, emotionally real, resourceful album ever recorded” (1978’s “Dylan in London and Paris”, 77), a work of “pure honed excellence” (1980’s Conclusions on the Wall, 91), “a mature masterpiece” (2011’s “Dylan at 70”, 237) , and “that great Dylan album” (2021’s Rough and Rowdy Ways piece, 291).

Of the albums between Blood on the Tracks and the present day, Gray praises Oh Mercy from 1989 and “Love and Theft” from 2001. The 2004 travel piece “Ghost Trains in the American South” calls Oh Mercy a “fine album,” recalling its genesis in Louisiana (201); and in a 2002 piece on “Dylan in Stockholm” (of which more below) “Love and Theft” is described as “wonderful” and “a work of . . . excellence” (191, 193). However, the triad of Modern Times, Together Through Life, and Tempest receives short shrift, and any comments on their individual songs are derogatory. The three “Sinatra ” albums are not so much as mentioned. In the Rough and Rowdy Ways article, Gray inveighs against the orthodoxy by which every new album is “hailed as a masterpiece” (289).

In an incidental remark in the Rough and Rowdy Ways piece, Gray proffers the controversial view that “almost every live song performance for the last fifteen years has been somewhere between indifferent and dreadful” (Gray’s italics 287). This concert-skeptical attitude as expressed in 2021 is not new. It was evident in the discussion of Dylan in concert in Song and Dance Man III, and this collection includes an already mentioned piece in which Gray berates Dylan’s performance at a Stockholm gig in 2002 as betraying “an exhaustion of his resources” and as being “painfully poor” (“Dylan in Stockholm” 192, 194). Introducing this review, Gray recalls that at the time “it elicited much hostility from fans,” but sticks to his guns and declares that it “still seems to me to represent fairly the dispiriting experience of many a [twenty-first century] Dylan concert” (184). Not one to mince his words, Gray is not afraid to confront head-on the received notion of a Dylan-in-concert constantly renewing and reinventing himself. Indeed, the Rough and Rowdy Ways piece finds him questioning the orthodoxy of reinvention through lyric changes, opining that “few of his in-performance word changes are better judged than on the original recordings” (288).

The book also contains Gray’s take on two more apples of discord, namely the plagiarism/intertextuality issue and the Nobel Prize. The former debate is well enough known via the proven influences on Dylan’s twenty-first-century work of such diverse writers as Ovid, Henry Timrod, and Junichi Saga. In this book, Gray does not get involved directly in that polemic, though the side he is on may be deduced from the circumstance that nowhere does he use the word “plagiarism.” He does, though, in the Rough and Rowdy Ways essay, make a number of comments. Gray draws attention to Scott Warmuth’s ongoing work in this area, pointing out how that commentator “scrutinises Dylan’s intertextuality very closely indeed” (308n) and acknowledging but also regretting “what for some of us is the bad news that Dylan has chopped up bits of dozens of other writers and re-used them, verbatim or almost so, for many years” (308). Gray’s position on the matter may be summarized as something like: this isn’t plagiarism, it’s intertextuality—but I wish there was less of it.

Regarding that other controversial later-Dylan issue, the Nobel Prize for Literature of 2016, the piece polemically entitled “Don’t Give Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature” saw the light of day as Michael Gray’s contribution to a forum held in Potsdam, Germany in 2013 on the subject of Dylan and the Nobel. Presenting the piece, Gray states: “Mine was, I believe, the lone talk arguing against”—a shade surprisingly, one might think, coming from Gray as Dylan studies pioneer. In hindsight, Gray may have been playing the devil’s advocate. Indeed, even in presenting his lecture, he backtracks to admit that “the moment I heard he’d won it (in October 2016) I was thrilled” (251). I will not here go into detail on the various arguments deployed by Gray, firstly because the issue is settled and secondly because I examined the matter at length in an article (published in the academic journal The Grove) soon after the award. I will therefore just cite one argument advanced by Gray: “[Dylan] is essentially a songwriter, musician, recording artist, and performer. Does he fit the candidature profile? Is he really to be defined as a literary figure? No. He’s essentially a cross-disciplinary artist” (254). This argument correctly presupposes that songwriting is by its nature a multimedia activity and not just a matter of words. However, much the same can be said about the art of the theatre—indeed, drama is arguably more of a “cross-disciplinary,” multimedia activity than songwriting—and the Nobel has nonetheless been awarded over time to numerous playwrights, from Eugene O’Neill to Wole Soyinka, Harold Pinter, Dario Fo, and many more.

The first of Gray’s two long articles, the piece entitled “Grubbing for a Moderate Jewel: Belle Isle,” was published in 1989 in the bilingually named academic journal Canadian Folklore canadien, produced under the auspices of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada. It centers on “Belle Isle,” the traditional song released in 1970 on Self Portrait which, as Gray recalls, at the time he thought was a Dylan composition (analyzing it as such in the first Song and Dance Man). Gray was misled by the misattribution to Dylan perpetrated in the album’s packaging: “Belle Isle” turned out in fact to be a traditional ballad from the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The error remedied, in this 1989 text Gray places the song in the tradition of “returned lover” ballads, and examines analogues from both Canadian and Irish sources (the latter being significant because of Irish emigration to the British colony and future Canadian province). “Belle Isle,” Gray concludes, “may be as much an Irish ballad as a New World one” (141). He further raises the question of whether Dylan learned the song from a Canadian or an Irish source—in the latter case, perhaps from Liam Clancy, or else from Northern Ireland’s McPeake family, associated with the Celtic classic “Wild Mountain Thyme” as covered by Dylan on various occasions (141n). Gray’s analysis of “Belle Isle” contains a wealth of fascinating information: Dylan scholars may consider it a model for future in-depth studies of Dylan’s traditional music visitations.

The second of the long articles, entitled simply “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” is also the last and the most heavily annotated item in the book. It constitutes Michael Gray’s most up-to-date considered statement on Dylan, touching on, among other things, such familiar topics as intertextuality and “Dylan live.”

There is no doubt that Gray welcomes Rough and Rowdy Ways as a return to form after what he sees as a run of disappointing albums, hailing it as “a real Dylan album, his convivial best since ‘Love and Theft’,” a “companionable and restorative pleasure” (345), and avowing that with this work, “my long exasperation recedes” (290). His text is divided into three: a brief account of the state of things in the Dylan world forming a backdrop to the album; a near twenty-page close analysis of one track, namely “Murder Most Foul”; and a detailed consideration of the rest of the album. The special treatment accorded to “Murder Most Foul” makes sense on a number of counts: it was the first track to be released—online at the height of the pandemic; it is the longest song Dylan has ever recorded; it occupies a separate disc of the album’s CD version; and it takes up a separate side of its vinyl avatar, thus paralleling “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on the original release of Blonde on Blonde. Gray states that it is “the final track on the album, but the first track we heard, and it remains somehow a separate creature from the rest” (290). He recalls his own excitement at its totally unexpected appearance on the scene: “It was exhilarating that Dylan could so dramatically surprise us after all these years” (289-290).

Gray’s analysis of the song is both explicatory and evaluative. It is not roses all the way: he affirms that Dylan’s writing exerts “mesmerising power,” but this “despite including some terrible lines of lyric” (290) (on the less felicitous side, Gray even compares Dylan to the notorious Scottish versifier William McGonagall!). Gray pays attention to each of the two parts Dylan’s song falls into, the account of the Kennedy assassination and the “Wolfman Jack” playlist. “Murder Most Foul” is one of Dylan’s most intertextual songs ever, accumulating seemingly endless titles of and quotations from songs, as well as references to books, plays, and films. Gray says he has located at least eighty such allusions, whether in quotation marks or “submerged” inside the lyric (303). There are no doubt more (others of course have played this game), and there will probably never be a final tally for Dylan’s intertext in this song. Regarding the assassination, Gray argues that “Dylan is urging on us an acceptance that Kennedy’s slaughter was a political conspiracy and not . . . the apolitical act of an unstable loner.” He declares that he feels “a warm gratitude that [this song] returns him to the subject matter of so many of his sharp, compelling early songs: songs like ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’” (303). On the (mostly) song intertext, he argues that it represents “the psyche and soul of the nation” (most references, albeit not all, are American) and captures how “music, song is infinitely flexible, and resilient not least through grim days” (307). Gray also notes, at the very end of the song, two highly Dylanesque surprises: the line “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell” is a case of Dylan the trickster at work, for Bud Powell “never did record” that number, as Gray shows with a link to the pianist’s official discography (304); and the song ends with the instruction “Play ‘Murder Most Foul’,” coming round full circle and thus, as Gray notes, constituting itself as, in postmodern terminology, a “self-reflexive” text (306).

Gray notes that across the whole album Dylan’s consistent use of the “scissors-and-paste” technique (308), and at one point takes him to task for being too obvious. Where in the past Dylan has been criticized for not naming obscure sources like Henry Timrod, in “I Contain Multitudes,” as Gray points out, Dylan declaims “Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe / Got skeletons in the walls of people you know,” thus making an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe, a famous writer if ever there was one and to two of his most celebrated stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” (311). Dylan is of course—dare I say it—“very well read, it’s well known,” but Gray finds this citation “unnecessarily belaboured,” if not didactic (315). He appears to wish today’s Dylan would wear his erudition a little lighter, rather than parading himself as an “intellectual polymath” (286). Despite his reservations, Gray notes the different songs’ sources assiduously, and in particular reads “My Own Version of You” as less an intertextual than a metatextual statement, symbolizing the cut-and-paste method as a Frankenstein-inspired act of “gathering bits and pieces to make a new whole” (312).

Concerning Rough and Rowdy Ways as a whole, Gray concludes by praising it as a work focused “[not] on death, but on old age,” if not a “portrait of the artist as old man,” marked by the passage of time and rooted in interconnectedness (“built from layer upon layer upon layer of reference, allusion and interconnection” (345)), and sums up declaring: “It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a work of depth, resonance, invention and generosity” (346).

In the “Dylan in Stockholm” piece from 2002, Gray declares: “When you enter the Dylan world, you sign up for life” (193). Some of course do leave (notably the fans who fled during the Christian period), but this book is more than sufficient evidence that leavers are denying themselves access to a cultural experience of extraordinary richness and diversity. One element which particularly characterizes the “Dylan world” is the surprise factor. Dylan’s own continual metamorphoses set the scene, and to end this review I would like to cite an epiphanic experience recounted by Gray. He relates how in Richmond, Virginia in 1966 he bought a new Dylan single, “I Want You.” He discovered to his amazement that on the B-side was a previously unreleased live track, the version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” which he had heard that year at Dylan’s May 14 concert in Liverpool: “That was me, somewhere on the fade-out handclaps” (19). Such surprises are part and parcel of the Dylan experience, and Michael Gray’s book, amply complementing his previous efforts, is a multidimensional and eminently readable exploration of what it means to be a follower of Bob Dylan.

Clinton Heylin. The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941-1966). Little, Brown and Company, 528 pp. Paperback. 978-0-316-53521-2.

REVIEW by Thomas M. Kitts, St. John’s University, NY.

In 2016, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa announced the acquisition of the Bob Dylan Archive, a vast collection of over 100,000 items spanning Dylan’s career. With recordings of studio sessions, live performances, private and professional films, outtakes, letters, drafts of songs, and more, the archive has already advanced Dylan studies and challenged previous conclusions. Clinton Heylin, “the world’s foremost Dylan scholar” according to Rolling Stone (Greene), buried himself in the archive for ten weeks as he researched The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941-1966), an exhaustive, extraordinarily detailed, and energetic text that illuminates the early Dylan. The book ends just prior to July 29, 1966, the date of Dylan’s motorcycle accident.

This reviewer, for one, appreciates Heylin’s obsession with getting the Dylan story right. The labyrinthine journey for Heylin is complicated by his subject, who is notorious for his lies, exaggerations, and self-mythologizing not only in interviews but also in the “unreliable” Chronicles, Vol. One, “the liar’s autobiography” (155, 308). Dylan, for example, never toured as a pianist with Bobby Vee, as he claimed. He played one gig with Vee before the singer decided he did not need a piano player. Nor did Dylan learn his “way of singing,” as he said, from farmhands and others while living in Kansas and South Dakota, places he never actually lived (110); he learned from records, friends, and books. Nor did masterpieces like “Mr. Tambourine Man” burst from his imagination in fifteen minutes—a “concoction” (246) exposed by the various draft manuscripts of the song in Tulsa. Great songs, like “Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” resulted from Dylan’s fairly regular writing process: the lyrics were “typed first, probably typed again (and again), and only then hand-corrected” (336). Dylan worked hard to construct a narrative of his life, even demanding that, in 1963, his parents give no further interviews after being quoted in Newsweek and subverting one of his tales.

Heylin’s title suggests the binaries that Dylan lives, unites, and transcends. In many ways, The Double Life reveals the immense contradiction, the immense polarity that is Dylan. (I’m thinking of Emerson in “Compensation” who wrote, “Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature . . . in male and female . . . in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids and of sound” [156].) Dylan, as publicist Anthea Joseph once wrote, may have had a public and private self (see Heylin 312), but the future Nobel Laureate was much more complicated than that. Like the excellent chess and poker player he was, Dylan could be manipulative and calculating—Heylin speculates that the non-appearance on the May 1963 Ed Sullivan Show may have been planned, with Dylan believing his walk off would generate more publicity than his performance. But Dylan would often unveil quick “mood swings,” which became “harder and harder to control” (409), and he could be rash to the detriment of his career—signing three bad contracts without professional consultation within a year. Similarly, as Joan Baez reports, “occasionally [Dylan] would exhibit a sudden concern for another outlaw, hitch-hiker, or bum” (265), but rarely was he kind to those near him. Sooner or later, friends would fall victim to his “hatchet mouth” (282) and “verbal bayonet” (430). As journalist and sometime friend Al Aronowitz put it, “To be the constant targets of digs from Bob was the price each of us paid for hanging out with him” (364). To other contemporary artists, Dylan could be haughty and intimidating, humiliating Donovan and Phil Ochs, and making Paul McCartney wait for an audience with him. I’m reminded of what Ray Davies said of John Lennon: “Lennon wasn’t [competitive]. . . . He just thought everyone else was shit” (qtd. in Kitts 104). It is no coincidence that Lennon was the Beatle with whom Dylan got along best, at least during those initial meetings. However, with his heroes, like Woody Guthrie and the Rev. Gary Davis, the generally stingy and arrogant Dylan could be deferential and humble. Once, while sharing the bill with Davis, Dylan was alarmed to hear the minister was earning only $75 for the gig. Dylan promptly gave Davis half his $50 fee, proclaiming that Davis should never earn less than $100 for a performance (88).

Of course, Dylan’s songs reflect his immense polarity. He could be sensitive, tender, and vulnerable as in “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” both about Suze Rotolo, but he may have also written some of the most insensitive, mean-spirited songs in existence. What Heylin calls his “put-down” (141) or “finger-pointing” (233) songs were brutal, like “It Ain’t’ Me, Babe,” also about Suze, or “Ballad in Plain D,” about Suze’s “parasite” sister and mother, “both suffering from the failures of their day.” (Dylan admitted to being “a real schmuck” for writing the latter song [260].) Similarly, Dylan would appear nonchalant and even uncaring in performance, only to ask eagerly what others thought. As the subtitle proclaims, the young Dylan was “restless” and “hungry.” The constant tapping of his foot or shaking of his leg signaled his restlessness. Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center, only saw Dylan motionless after he gave the young star a less than flattering comment after a performance. (The quivering leg was observed well before amphetamines became part of the singer’s steady diet.)

Before he was twenty, Dylan, ambitious and hungry for stardom, arrived in New York City. He may not have been sure whether he wanted to be Woody or Elvis, a poet or a rock ’n’ roller, but he had a vast imagination, a powerful intellect, and an epic memory. A number of those close to Dylan noted how he “soaked up everything” (Liam Clancy, 83) like “a sponge and a half” (Eric von Schmidt, 91), and friend Victor Maymudes called him “an electrical condenser, a capacitor filling up with information and ultimately exploding on paper with songs” (124). Robbie Robertson, echoing many others, said, “Bob probably knew more songs than anybody walking the earth” (433). In the early years, Dylan imitated his musical heroes, Guthrie, Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, among others, but by spring 1963, he was imitating no one, and shortly after he united Woody and Elvis, poetry and rock ’n’ roll—sometimes with the same song. Consider his acoustic version of the traditional folk song “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” to which he added verses, followed a few years later by his thunderous and wailing live rendition.

Songs burst out of Dylan at a frenetic pace in these early years. Many were surprised by the number of words, the number of lines in a Dylan song. Like Whitman, who a century earlier had liberated poetry from the constrictions of meter and vocabulary, Dylan liberated the pop song from restrictions on musical and lyrical length. A defining moment for Dylan may have come a day after Christmas in 1963 when he met Allen Ginsberg, one of Whitman’s poetic sons. His own fiercest critic, Dylan pushed himself at a torrid pace to create something that not only matched Ginsberg and Whitman, but “something that [could stand] alongside Rembrandt’s paintings” (123). So many lines and songs were coming to Dylan that he would often forget them as soon as he wrote them down. In a crowded room, he might isolate himself to write, sometimes leaving behind scraps of paper. Some of these scraps or drafts have found their way to Tulsa and some have been lost forever. Referring to the 1965-66 period during which Dylan wrote and recorded Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, Heylin laments that these lost scraps, this “detritus . . . could connect the dots on surely the greatest creative burst in the history of popular song” (289).

Heylin approaches Dylan’s life with all the attention of a detective—as when he traces the manuscript trail of “Like a Rolling Stone” and refers to the “worrying incongruity” of the song’s appearance on the stationery of the Roger Smith Hotel (336). Yet his painstaking investigation never grows tedious as his energetic and lucid prose keeps the text moving and the reader focused. Never is Heylin livelier than when he is sarcastic, even snarky: he attacks fellow Dylan biographers like Howard Sounes, a “professional dirtdigger,” and those who failed to recognize his subject’s greatness, like the “tin-eared” Mike Porso (96), owner of Gerdes Folk City, who did not grant Dylan immediate headlining status. Most importantly, the text provides a detailed account of Dylan’s early development and creative genius. Double Life is indispensable to Dylan scholars, a game changer in Dylan studies. I anxiously await future volumes of Heylin’s prodigious biography.

 

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Compensation.” The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson, Modern Library, pp 154-71.

Greene, Andy. “Clinton Heylin Wrote Eight Bob Dylan Books. Then He Realized He Needed to Start All Over.” Rolling Stone, 11 May 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/bob-dylan-biographer-clinton-heylin-interview-double-life-book-1166784/. Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.

Kitts, Thomas M. Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else. Routledge, 2008.

Bob Dylan and the Arts: Songs, Film, Painting, and Sculpture in Dylan’s Universe.  Edited by Maria Anita Steffanelli, Alessandro Carrera, and Fabio Fanuzzi.  Roma: Edizioni Storia e Letteratura, 2020. vii + 257 pp.  €18,00/$20.50 U.S.

REVIEW BY Mark DeStephano, Saint Peter’s University

Volume 35 of the “Biblioteca di Studi Americani” (Library of American Studies), this work is a collection of essays which is the fruit of collaboration between Italian and American scholars.  The book is divided into three sections: (1) Literature and Linguistics/Letteratura e Linguistica; (2) Music and Cinema/Musica e Cinema; and (3) Art/Arte. The collection contains articles that are written in both Italian and English, and offers a unique appreciation of the diverse creative elements that are present in Dylan’s work, especially those originating in Italian culture. In her introduction to the section entitled “Literature and Linguistics/Letteratura e Linguistica,” Maria Anita Steffanelli reminds readers that “Bob Dylan is a multimedia artist, a songwriter who crosses over the confines of music, language, and performance so as to sculpt and chisel, to improvise and to devote himself to the cinematographic turn, to design, to paint, and to dedicate himself to graphics” [“Bob Dylan è artista multimediale, un cantautore che attraversa i confini di musica, linguaggio e performance per scolpire e cesellare, improvvisare e darsi alla regia cinematografica, disegnare, dipingere e dedicarsi alla grafica”—all translations are my own] (4). And thus, the purpose of this collection is revealed, “In the essays that are offered, the position of the artist is evaluated with regard to the arts in which he has engaged, giving attention to sound, to the word, to the visual element, and to gesture” [“Nei saggi proposti si valuta la posizione dell’artista rispetto alle arti in cui si cimenta, dedicando attenzione al suono, alla parola, al elemento visuale, al gesto”] (4). Steffanelli’s introduction to the section includes a brief synopsis of each of the articles, including those of Caterina Ricciardi, “Bob Dylan: disincanti” [“Bob Dylan: Disenchantments”], Giulio Carlo Pantalei, “Machivellerie dylaniane: letteratura italiana ri-visitata” [“Dylanesque Machiavellianisms: Italian Literature Revisited”], Massimo Bacigalupo, “Reading Ricks Reading Dylan,” Daniele Baglioni, “Pronouns in Dylan’s Early Songs. An Insight into Dylanesque Personal Deixis,” and Renato Giovannoli, “Retorica trasformazionale. Il canzoniere di Bob Dylan come palinsesto biblico” [“Transformational Rhetoric: Bob Dylan’s Songbooks as Biblical Palimpsest”]. This impressive array of studies considers Dylan’s work from several unique perspectives, challenging those who hear or study Dylan’s work to consider that, as Caterina Ricciardi observes of “Desolation Row,” for example, “Bob Dylan is a champion/model of intertextuality in his reverse use of sources—in the manner of antiphrasis—in this poem of his that approximates the flipping of citations in the so-called Postmodern but which in reality is still a legacy of Modernism” [“È un campione dell’intertestualità, Bob Dylan, nell’usare le sue fonti a rovescio—in modo antifrastico—in questa sua poesia vicina ai ribaltamenti citazionali del cosiddetto Postmoderno ma in realtà ancora di eredità modernista”]. It is ironic that the Italian term “campione” can be translated as both “champion” and “model,” highlighting, as do all of the collection’s essays, Dylan’s virtuosity and confirming his place in intellectual history.

In his introduction to section two, “Music and Cinema/Musica e Cinema,” Alessandro Carrera makes note of Dylan’s remarkable contribution to film, first made in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: “A film had never been seen in which the most pathetic scene was ‘doubled’ by an ‘extra-diegetic’ song, as film theoreticians say, that no one in the scene sings and which is totally superimposed over the action” [“Non si era mai visto un film in cui la scena più patetica venisse ‘raddoppiata’ da una canzone ‘extra-diegetica’, come dicono i teorici del cinema, che nessuno canta in scena ed è totalmente sovrimposta all’azione”] (70). Equally fascinating is Carrera’s assertion that the different aspects of Dylan’s interior being are revealed in something of a mysterious, hidden way:

In Dylan, these secret relations are present for anyone who wants to discover them, but not at the visual level. They are developed amidst the verses of songs and his voice, which sings them, not amidst the images and the music. As an author of songs, as a singer, Dylan is always in dialogue with other voices and with other songs, while as an author of images he does not find another that approaches his own, remaining closed, within his difficult, multiple identity, not managing to construct a bridge over which others might be able to pass [In Dylan, questi rapporti segreti sono presenti per chi li vuole scoprire, ma non a livello visivo. Si istituiscono tra i versi delle canzoni e la sua voce che li canta, non tra le immagini e la musica. Come autore di canzoni, come cantante, Dylan è sempre in dialogo con altre voci e con altre canzoni, mentre come autore di immagini non trova un suo prossimo, resta chiuso nella sua difficile, multipla identità, non riesce a erigere un ponte sul quale altri possano passare.] (71)

Dylan’s genius and complexity as a songwriter and musician and are brought to light in the remaining articles of this section, which are far-ranging, exploring numerous aspects of Dylan’s artistic environment and creation: Cesare Cusan, “Renaldo & Clara: Painting a Film” [“Renaldo & Clara: dipingere un film”], Alessandro Carrera, “Between the Shulamite and the Queen of Sheba: The Love Poem that Bob Dylan Could Not Write,” Elèna Mortara, “How the Winds Are Blowing: Joan Baez & Bob Dylan.  A Personal Medley of Music, Memories, and Visions,” Chris Lowe, “The Greenwich Village Folk Scene; Was It Ever What It Used to Be? YES!: the Story Behind the Show,” Alex R. Falzon, “Ring Composition in Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Mario Gerolamo Mossa, “Don’t Look Back and “Ghost” of Like A Rolling Stone: Philology, Composition and Cinéma Vérité.”

The third and final section of this collection, “Art/Arte,” is particularly intriguing, not only because of its general consideration of the relationship between painting and music (who would have suspected that there was a connection between Van Gogh and Dylan!), but also because of its exploration of painter Norman Raeben’s profound influence on Dylan’s life and thought, a topic which merits extensive scholarly attention in the future. This collection offers a number of highly informative essays that help readers to consider some of the ways in which Raeben’s attitude towards life and his instruction of his pupil Dylan transformed the latter’s way of perceiving the world, and ultimately led to Dylan’s refashioning of his musical art. This section, which is dedicated to the artistic underpinnings of Dylan’s thought, concludes with an intriguing and well-illustrated presentation of Dylan’s roots in Minnesota, adding to the section’s fascinating panoply of perspectives on the songwriter’s intellectual and personal foundations: Fabio Fantuzzi, “Introduzione,” Maria Anita Steffanelli, “Another Side of Bob Dylan: “Dylan Is van Gogh. Van Gogh Is Dylan,” Claudia Carr Levy, “Norman Raeben,” John Smith Amato, “Art for Life’s Sake: The Work and Legacy of Norman Raeben,” Roz Jacobs, “The Idiot and the Genius,” Nico Stringa, “Norman Raeben: una modernità compatibile” [“Norman Raeben: A Compatible Modernity”], Fabio Fantuzzi, “Painting Songs, Composing Paintings: Norman Raeben and Bob Dylan,” and David Pichaske, “The Minnesota Connection of Bob Dylan’s Art.”

This volume demonstrates the increasing interest in and knowledge of Dylan’s works internationally, and represents a particularly significant contribution by Italian scholarship to the emerging field of Dylan Studies. The strength of the work lies in the breadth of areas that are studied, as well as the careful research and the meticulous crafting of the articles. A minor weakness—and it pains me to say this as a Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures—is the fact that some of the articles are written in Italian, which somewhat narrows their accessibility to those who would be interested in the work. Nonetheless, both the editors and the authors of the articles of this collection are to be congratulated for their careful scholarship and great creativity in their study of a vast array of themes, and the excellent contribution their work makes to international Dylan Studies.

Bob Dylan. Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York. Columbia Records, 2021.

REVIEW BY Nicholas Birns, New York University

This review will largely refer to the two-disc standard version of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 16: Springtime in New York, but it will also reference three cover songs that appear on the deluxe five-disc version.

The years between 1980 and 1985 saw the emergence of what one might term the sustainable Bob Dylan, the Dylan who evolved the model of live performance that he would continue for the remainder of his career, the Dylan no longer part of a period style or even of the history of rock ’n’ roll, but someone continuously and dynamically building on his own oeuvre, “keeping on keepin’ on,” as he himself would put it. This period also marks the peak and end of his overtly Christian phase and the beginning of the cultural affect that would mark the rest of his career: almost but not quite post-Christian, post-hippie, post-radical, and articulated in a mode at once personal, magisterial, and abstract.

“Angelina,” the first song on the two-disk album, uses rhyme both in a bravura and in a provocative way. We marvel at “concertina” and “subpoena,” but “Argentina” creates far darker reverberations, considering the political repression there which, in the early 1980s, was at its height. The song combines prophecy (conjured by sundry Biblical tropes), love-lyrical stateliness, and intense yearning for the inaccessible beloved. What makes “Angelina” a great Dylan song is how it samples so many of his idioms and how one cannot quite know whether its mode is rapture, tribute, elegy, or rage. Had it been included on the original Shot of Love, it would have fundamentally changed the character of the album, having a less strictly religious tone.

The far more upbeat “Need A Woman” addresses some of the themes of yearning and discontent found in “Angelina.” Though searching for a love that “doesn’t have to be condemned,” the song is more optimistic about reaching that goal than “Angelina.” It also engages the listener much more in the search for community and understanding. “Let’s Keep It Between Us,” a song left off Shot of Love to the consternation of many, strikes a middle note between the fundamental introversion of “Angelina” and the honky-tonk community of “Need A Woman,” demonstrating Dylan’s ability to allow for upshifts and downshifts in the intensity of conviction and ferocity of address within the song. The fundamental irony—that of the speaker urging his beloved to keep their love between them, while in fact bringing it to the attention of a large audience—is inherent in the mode of lyric address. Though it has been speculated that the secret teased in the title references anything from interracial love to a Christian allegory, fundamentally it is a secret no less hidden for being, in its articulation, an open secret.

“Price of Love,” also left off Shot of Love, is another more upbeat song. That the price of love is going up might normally be a cause for lamentation, or at least annoyance, but the song finds a mode of rejoicing. “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away,” another outtake, is more lyrically and musically intense. One of the joys of listening to this music sequentially as an album is the contrasting and complementary levels in which the singer either emotionally pours himself into the lyrics or jauntily and playfully steps back from them. The Caribbean, reggae-like inflection of “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away,” and the lyrics’ combination of exhortation, warning, and plea, gives the song a relaxing lilt that yet requires a listener’s rigorous attention.  “Fur Slippers” is another outtake and another love song, though focusing on a person not an object. “You can keep my girlfriend,” the song ends, but “bring back my fur slippers today.” The down-and-out, vernacular posture of this song is and would have been familiar to longtime aficionados of Dylan, leading into the explicit proletarian protest of “Yes Sir, No Sir.” This song, which could easily have been a Woody Guthrie or, in Dylan’s era, a Bruce Springsteen song, is a ruthless and searing denunciation of the exploitation of factory work; if it had originally appeared on Shot of Love, it would have sounded a strongly anti-authoritarian note. In general, the outtakes from Shot of Love would have ramified and even questioned the album’s identity as a declaratively Christian work. Similarly, “Lord Protect My Child,” an Infidels outtake in its heartfelt soulful invocation of prayer and apocalypse, would have been easily at home on any of the three evangelical albums.

With “Jokerman,” on the Infidels album, and “Blind Willie McTell,” an Infidels outtake, we move towards the mid-1980s and the post-Christian Dylan. “Blind Willie McTell” recounts the life of a Black musician from the Delta who is a renowned figure in the history of the blues. This tribute by one musician to another is an instance of Dylan sounding his adoptive musical roots but is also, in its own way, a cry against racial injustice in the idiom of “Hurricane” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It is a song that makes the listener slow down and take stock, and that pulses with both empathy and lamentation.

“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” appears here in a grainier, less heavily orchestrated and produced version than on Infidels, and Dylan articulates the lyrics in a much blurrier way than on the album. Though less streamlined, the bootleg version sounds more levels of anguish and uncertainty as it traces the course of a relationship across the detritus of spiritual and pop-cultural upheaval.

I now want to depart from the track-by-track discussion of the songs on the two-disc version and go to three covers included on the five-disk version: “We Just Disagree,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Abraham, Martin and John.” Without putting too much interpretive weight on the lyrics, the first two songs are very secular, even though their content can be allegorized as figuratively spiritual. “We Just Disagree,” originally recorded by Dave Mason in 1977, is a breakup song, perhaps one might say almost the Platonic form of breakup songs. As such it is totally about a relationship between two human beings, really nothing beyond that relationship, and its break-up. “Sweet Caroline,” originally recorded by Neil Diamond in 1969, on the other hand, is not just about a love that is mutual and successful but that involves a larger vision of human community. This is why it has become as much of a community song as a song to one woman possibly can. Even if one sees Dylan’s performance of the song as a tacit tribute to his relationship with Carolyn Dennis, a possible personal valentine in the mode of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the performance was a collective offering and involved its audience in an emotional conjuring of community. But “Sweet Caroline” conjures community in a very “this world” picture (especially as “Caroline” is not a Biblical name), and does not involve calling a people to a spiritual awareness beyond an earthly condition of empathy and affection. Both songs thus link Dylan not only to segments of musical pop culture that might have been thought too trivial or too commercial to be aligned with the kind of work we associate with him. But these songs provide a bridge between his born-again Christian work and his secular, or at least post- born-again work.

Only those alive and active at the time can appreciate what a gap there would have been between the audience associated with “We Just Disagree” and “Sweet Caroline,” and the audience for the music that had made Dylan famous. This gap is as wide as the one between the implied ideology of pre-Christian Dylan and the implied ideology of the three Christian albums. One can imagine, for instance, an eleven-year-old at the time liking pop songs of the day and a sixteen-year-old sibling, a Dylan aficionado, looking down snobbishly at the younger kid, only to find Dylan himself celebrating and even learning from that which many of his avowed fans wound disdain.

This has been our familiar trope in Dylan studies: ending up far cornier and middle of the road in affect and less stereotypically hip than categorizers would deem, the Dylan who (as depicted in Chronicles, Vol. 1) would rather go to the Rainbow Room to hear Frank Sinatra, Jr. than the Fillmore East to hear the Doors or the Who.

The larger problem here is one familiar to students of literary and cultural history, that differences between high and popular in a given period always tend to iron out with time if read from the vantage point of later history. It is hard for people in the twenty-first century to distinguish between court and religious painting from the Renaissance, or between learned and popular histories from the early Middle Ages. The period style envelops all. Dylan’s covers of the two popular songs actually acknowledge this and frame himself and cultural history in a way that others would wind up doing much later—that is, what Dylan was doing was going to eventually happen anyway.

A third cover, “Abraham, Martin, and John,” written by Dick Holler and recorded by several artists, including Dion and Smokey Robinson in the late 1960s, raises a different set of questions. The song is a tribute to three martyred American leaders, Abraham Lincoln, John. F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Written just after King’s assassination, it recognizes his stature; even though King was the only one of the three martyrs who was never President, the song anticipates King’s own holiday and place as a central figure in American civil religion. Dylan’s cover puts him more directly within the context of  “the long 60s” than do most of his songs after “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and also looks forward to Dylan’s direct engagement with the martyrology of President Kennedy in 2020’s “Murder Most Foul.” The presence of the late Clydie King on the cover of “Abraham, Martin, and John” not only makes the song’s response to the tragedies of American history an interracial one, but makes a central point about Dylan’s engagement with Christianity as such. Given the influence of gospel idioms on the three Christian albums, and the presence of Regina McCrary and (Dylan’s eventual wife) Carolyn Dennis as backup singers, this period is not just one of engagement with Christian spirituality for Dylan, but of a crossing of racial boundaries.

Dylan’s born-again Christian phase tallies in a peculiar way with broader cultural history because it begins in 1979 and ends by 1983. If, for instance, it had begun in 1981, Dylan’s born-again Christianity would have been very directly linked with the election of Ronald Reagan, the rising power of the evangelical Christian right, and would have been understood as in more direct political alignment with these larger trends. That this phase developed in the era of the rise of Reaganism but in the end perhaps had a motion contrary to that rise makes it very different in terms of how we interpret Dylan’s evangelical period historically.

It is also pertinent that Dylan’s born-again Christian songs do not seem to have any continuing influence in the evangelical Christian community today, although I am not in a position to assess this comprehensively. It is always a struggle to remember that these three songs are in fact not on any of the three Christian albums but in fact on the post-Christian album Infidels. Thus Dylan may have gone through a born-again Christian period, and he may have written a song advocating or defending Israel. But he did not write a song advocating or defending Israel on a record in which he appeared to be an avowedly born-again Christian. This fact introduces at least a minimal level of discursive irony or anomaly in the situation. It alters the context in which we read the song. Equally, it has to be acknowledged that the song came out after Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon and, despite Israel’s post-1967 military occupation of Palestinian territories, it would have sounded very different had it been written just a year before that. It is clear that Dylan, for lack of a better phrase, alternates in the lyrics between direct advocacy, when the neighborhood bully, who plays by the rules, is outnumbered—and direct irony, when he is called a neighborhood bully even as the song itself does not agree. Obviously, the song criticizes the idea of Israel as a neighborhood bully. But both the discursive stance of the lyrics and Dylan’s own articulation of them—even more so on this album’s outtake than in the original cut on Infidels—are ambiguous. In the outtake, there is more spring in his singing of the lyrics, and they resound a little more ambivalently than authorial intention might have desired, particularly because the neighborhood bully is personified and given he/him pronouns. Whatever one might think of the politics of the song, Dylan’s vocal rendition of the lyrics’ ironic posture is compelling, and involves both the manifestation of emotion and also its restraint.

Rob Sean Wilson, in his book Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted, has understood Dylan’s poetics as one of conversion, but not as a determinate conversion to Christianity. Instead there is a continual self-reinvention, in which every turn has some spiritual potential, whether hidden or manifest. The first track on the second disk of the bootleg, “Foot of Pride,” exemplifies these quick, propulsive, and contrary motions and is replete with religious and apocalyptic imagery: days of wrath, days of judgment, lions tearing the flesh of people. That there “ain’t no coming back” when the foot of pride comes down would seem to make outcomes less alterable than both Wilson’s analysis and previous lyrics of Dylan’s, such as “the loser now / will be later to win,” would have it.

The most obvious way to interpret “when the foot of pride comes down ain’t no coming back” is that once pride is overthrown, it cannot come back in a merely cyclical or thermostatic way, that a pride rising too high will be thrown down irrevocably. Some of the song’s many case-study examples—which, like those of “Tangled Up in Blue,” seem at once many different stories and different avatars of only one story—are straightforward parables of humbled pride, such as the businessman named Red who, like Samson, is brought down by the luscious temptations of a Delilah.

The situation is complicated here by the fact that in “Too Late,” a song late on the first disc of the album, Dylan uses much of the imagery and even the exact language of “Foot of Pride,” there linking them not to a spiritual humbling but simply to lost opportunities, it being too late to bring these possibilities back. But the expression of these lyrics on “Foot of Pride” involves not simply a missed destiny or a humbled pride but a misappropriated faith. In the lines, “In these times of compassion when conformity is in fashion / Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in,” “times of compassion” is clearly sardonic, as there is only so much compassion conformity will permit. In “They like to take all this money from sin / Build big universities to study in / Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ all the way to the Swiss banks,” it is not just the hypocrisy and the hidden greed of those who misappropriate faith that Dylan satirizes, but their sense of their own sublimity, their own perfection. This is what the foot of pride epitomizes, and also what makes the downfall so definitive: it is not just an outer fall, a coming down in the world, but an inner fall, a fall of belief into corruption. The song expresses at least as much of a conversion from Christianity, or a critique of the self-arrogated superiority of those who call themselves Christians, as a conversion to Christianity from a more worldly perspective. It reminds me, to at least some degree, of two of Robert Lowell’s deconversion poems, “Beyond the Alps” and “After the Surprising Conversions.”

The way Dylan enunciates the words in “Foot of Pride”—almost monotonal, lacking any prophetic urgency, but nonetheless ominous and insistent—is similar to the vocal style of “Jokerman,” which started off Infidels and, in a more jaunty way, is a critique of posturers and hypocrites. “Sweetheart Like You,” which follows “Jokerman” on Infidels and “Foot of Pride” on Springtime in New York, seems also to have applicability to these themes of social critique even though ostensibly it is a romantic lyric address to a woman. That the refrain quotes a cliché—“What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”—makes the song, however, far less personal. I’ve even heard one theory that the figure addressed is the Virgin Mary. More personal is the subsequent “Someone’s Got a Hold on My Heart.” This latter song seems to address a personal involvement even though the lyrics, with mentions of Babylon and voices in the wilderness, take elements of prophetic critique present in Dylan’s songs of conversion—and deconversion. “I and I,” with its reggae Rastafarian influences, conjures an intimate association between self and God, a sense that the self might be God or be close to God, that is surely outside any traditional Christian anthropology, especially an evangelical one. Again, Dylan’s off-kilter enunciation does not totally commit him to any doctrine and makes the phrase “I and I” more a question about the inner and outer self than a wholesale identification of the self with God. “I and I” can also be read as a self-doubling, self-dissociation, or self-scrutiny; or conversely as a variation on Charles Taylor’s idea in Sources of the Self—namely that the personal “I” or identity can only be secured through the existence of a higher power. The presence in the lyrics of the Biblical “eye for an eye” also at once highlights the more peaceable nature of “I and I” and suggests its practical impossibility in a world where revenge and retaliation still reign. The version on Springtime in New York is described as an “alternate take”  from the one on Infidels, and Dylan’s articulation of “I and I” in which the words are more slurred together indicates a tangled relation between selves and their different levels of magnitude and awareness, as opposed to the more mellow personal/spiritual quest of the “standard” Infidels version.

“Tell Me” is a straightforward love song, even one of courtship, though the lyrics’ ostensible position is that of a lover seeking reassurance he has not been abandoned by his beloved. “Enough Is Enough” is set away from any spiritual landscape and instead takes place in the joyous yet sinister old-timey honky-tonk world in which so many of Dylan’s lyrics find their residence. The backup singing by Dennis, Debra Boyd, and Queen Esther Marrow on “Tight Connection to My Heart” adds racial and gender diversity to what might not be Dylan’s most bravura song, but which is a pleasant and pace-changing listen. It begins the final group of songs, those which either were included in or were cut from 1985’s Empire Burlesque. On this album, the entire question of conversion or critique has faded and the internal evolution and quest for sustainability takes the foreground. “Seeing The Real You At last” is a title as ominous as it is tantalizing. The lyrics point to a reality somewhere in-between: the person’s “real you” is perceived as not evil, but is nevertheless not unambiguous. And there is a sense in which the singer himself is encountering his own “real you” and thus the subject of the song is as much self as other. As has been frequently noted, the lyrics from the Empire Burlesque period have a determined ambiguity and even literariness to them, something found even in the most heart-baring “Emotionally Yours.” This song, potentially a bit too sweet in tenor, is made rougher by Dylan’s weird pronunciation of “Emotionally” to rhyme with “Sally” (more so than is true on the album version), foregrounding the word in a more detached way as language as much as a state of feeling. “Emotionally Yours” is both a love song and a breakup song, and this is where the sweetness turns sour. The song is addressed to a woman who has broken up with the singer, but is also suggesting on one level they will always be together. This connection, though, will only be manifested as an enduring emotional attachment, not as a couple. The bootleg version sounds less plaintive and melancholy than that released on Empire Burlesque; the tenderness of the Empire Burlesque version is replaced by a more fine-grained sincerity. “Clean Cut Kid,” a song originally slated for Infidels but not used until Empire Burlesque, is a stark parable of social maladjustment, a tale of somebody who tries to play by the rules but finds that society forces him to break those same rules—which society hypocritically itself observes on the surface but not in fact. The Springtime In New York version of “Clean Cut Kid” is also described as an alternate take on the remixed version in Empire Burlesque, and one would say that while the album version was more a political editorial on the state of America, and specifically connected to the Vietnam War experience, the bootleg version is a more generally pertinent cultural diagnosis.

“New Danville Girl” follows this song about the ravaging of American masculinity with a portrait of a tortured masculine soul wandering around Texas seeking for the new Danville Girl as an inaccessible ideal. It is a song much more about loneliness than any possible connection, and the celebration of the woman’s beauty only serves to underscore the singer’s despair. The songs from the Empire Burlesque era delineate the way that, up until that album, Dylan was defining himself; from that album onward, he was probing further into a self he has in his songs already begun to know and understand.

The songs on Springtime in New York mark the transition of Bob Dylan from a rock star to a genre-transcending artist who has developed one of the most sustained and influential careers of our time. It takes him through conversion and critique in a complex dynamic in which neither term gains definitive mastery. More specifically, Springtime in New York spotlights the early 1980s as a pivotal period to examine in Dylan studies, and it foregrounds Dylan as an intriguing cultural actor in the early 1980s—an era whose meaning and legacy is still taking shape today.

Chrissie Hynde. Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan. BMG Rights Management (UK), May 2021.

Emma Swift. Blonde on the Tracks. Patrick Sansone, Tiny Ghost Records, August 2020.

REVIEW BY Christine Hand Jones, Dallas Baptist University

Big Girls Contain Multitudes

The women who have covered the songs of Bob Dylan have left an indelible mark on his career and his compositions. Joan Baez’s sincere soprano helped make Dylan famous in the early 60s, and Adele’s soulful alto helped keep him relevant in the early 2000s. Judy Collins, Mary Travers, Odetta, Nina Simone, and many others brought Dylan’s work to a broader listening public by putting their own spin on his songs. In the deft hands of these skilled singers and interpreters, Dylan’s lyrics and melodies take center stage, and his songs develop in surprising ways. Two new collections of Dylan covers, Standing in the Doorway by Chrissie Hynde and Blonde on the Tracks by Emma Swift, add valuable contributions to the collected works of Dylan’s female interpreters. As with the best interpretations, these albums not only highlight the depth and beauty already inherent in Dylan’s work, they also add new layers of meaning that neither Dylan nor any male interpreters could hope to achieve. When Hynde and Swift cover Dylan, they also uncover a range of feminist interpretations that shine uniquely in the female voice.

Chrissie Hynde released Standing in the Doorway in May 2021. The raw, folk-rock recordings represent Hynde’s pandemic lockdown work, with nine rich, intimate renditions of Dylan classics (Grow). At seventy, the Pretenders lead singer is just a decade behind Dylan, and her band’s hit song “I’ll Stand by You” is a classic. So, Standing in the Doorway feels less like a tribute to a songwriting hero than a cozy jam session with a friend. Her choice of material spans Dylan’s career, though she lingers on 80s-era Dylan, with stripped-down versions of several songs from Infidels and Shot of Love. Hynde’s raspy alto and contemplative arrangements evoke the best of Johnny Cash’s American series of recordings. Even without bass or drums, Hynde’s recordings sound full and rich with doubled-acoustic guitars and simple add-ons like piano, mandolin, and the occasional whirring organ or harmonium. Every now and then Hynde counts the songs off or clears her throat, and wind and birdsong contribute to the album’s organic sensibility. Taken together, these sonic details serve as the perfect frame for Hynde’s dark, velvety voice.

 Hynde’s warm, emotionally-honest delivery brings listeners up close and personal with classic Dylan tunes “Tomorrow is a Long Time” and “Love Minus Zero (No Limit).” The title track, “Standing in the Doorway” seems practically written for Hynde’s raw, expressive vocal tone. But where she really shines is on her acoustic revisions of the early 80s songs that have suffered from the ravages of poorly aging production trends. Standing in the Doorway opens and closes with songs from the third of Dylan’s “gospel” albums, Shot of Love. She starts with “In the Summertime,” a great tune that Hynde elevates with gentle backing vocals, a pleasantly ringing tambourine, and a droning organ. The song ends with laughter, fading guitars, and sounds from nature that allow the listener to linger in a summer garden. She closes her album with “Every Grain of Sand,” a gospel song of grace and maturity. But where Dylan strains after an impassioned but elusive gospel fervor in his Shot of Love performance, Hynde takes the listener to church in a different way, evoking Dylan’s version from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. When she sings the phrase “In the time of my confession” in her crackling contralto, we see the candle-lit chapel instead of the blazing Pentecostal revival tent. Such intimacy is exactly what the song needs to put the listener’s focus on its contemplative philosophical musings.

The stand-out track from Hynde’s covers of 80s-era Dylan is “Blind Willie McTell.” Recorded for Infidels, “Blind Willie McTell” never made it to the actual record. Multiple bootleg versions reveal the song’s stunning potential, with Dylan never landing on a definitive interpretation. Still, Jonathan Lethem calls the song a “masterwork,” “a vision of the original sins of human history through the lens of a memorial blues, a casual epic totally unified in terms of tone, imagery, and narrative implications” (162). Chrissie Hynde’s spooky, folk version of “Blind Willie McTell” fulfills the song’s vision with a recording that stays true both to the folk-blues roots of Dylan’s youth and the bluesman to whom the song pays homage.

In keeping with the style of the rest of the album, Hynde begins “Blind Willie McTell” with simple piano and acoustic guitar. On the second verse, a low drone fades in beneath it all, elevating the tension, as every crack in Hynde’s voice contributes to the song’s chilling images. In verse three, a high, keening organ demonstrates the “tribes a-moanin’” on the slave ships. Ghostly mandolin and percussive bass pulses create the sounds of the song’s “chain gang” and yelling “rebels.” Then the song bursts into a glorious organ and mandolin duet before the denouement in the final verse. As we gaze with Hynde out of “the window of the St. James Hotel” and ponder the corruption of mankind, she returns to simple piano and guitar, only to build the whole thing back up again, ending with the wails of eerie mandolin. If the album’s title, Standing in the Doorway, is meant to be a metaphor for Hynde as she looks into the room of the incomparable Dylan, I’d say she underestimates her abilities. Hynde’s rendition of “Blind Willie McTell” is a revelation. She’s not just lingering in the doorway of someone else’s genius; she’s taking her own part in the retelling and interpretation and rewriting these songs in the process.

Bringing a worthy interpretive offering of her own, Nashville-based Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift released Blonde on the Tracks, her alt-Americana collection of Dylan covers, in August of 2020. Generally, Swift’s recordings are sunnier than Hynde’s, with her lilting soprano alternating between ethereal leaps and gospel growls. Vintage reverb on her vocals and bright, droning pedal steel lend her recordings the nostalgic glow of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline days. Meanwhile, the warm, overdriven tones of Robyn Hitchcock’s brilliant electric guitar work bring a touch of nineties grunge into the mix. Swift is a millennial— barely—born in 1981, and her cover choices run the gamut of Dylan’s career, from the 60s to the present day with her cover of 2020’s “I Contain Multitudes.” This year Rolling Stone called her “Queen Jane Approximately” #18 in the 80 Best Dylan Covers (Emma Swift). Swift’s gentle, Americana version of the song sparkles with her fine vocals and Robyn Hitchcock’s Beatles-inspired guitar riffs. When Dylan sings “Queen Jane,” it sounds as if he is offering mutual help and support to someone named Jane, and critics love to argue about whether or not there is a real-life Queen Jane who inspired Dylan. By contrast, Emma Swift transforms the song into something approaching the mystical. Her “Queen Jane” invokes the aid of a sister or friend, and this shift stems equally from the implications of a narrator gender-swap as from Swift’s otherworldly vocal style.

This reinvigoration takes place with other 60s classics that Swift recasts. On “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Swift’s voice toes just the right line between pretty and gritty, as if splitting the difference between Dylan’s original and Joan Baez’s cover. Amazingly, she takes the tempo a bit slower than Dylan, pushing the eleven-and-a-half minute song to almost a full twelve minutes. But Emma Swift makes those twelve minutes fly. Swift’s crisp enunciation highlights each surreal image as it hits our consciousness, and her flawless vocal delivery reinforces the song’s gorgeous melody. The slow-build of her arrangement sets up the climactic arc of the choruses so that by the time we arrive at the dramatic descent of “my warehouse eyes” we are emotionally primed for what follows. As each chorus closes with that ambiguous question, “sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” we are prepared to wait right alongside the narrator, especially if that narrator happens to be Emma Swift.

Even if we only consider the musical beauty of Chrissie Hynde’s and Emma Swift’s interpretations, we find two strong albums, worthy to stand alongside the many collections of other female artists who have covered Dylan’s work. Both women have created enjoyable renditions of Dylan classics that bear each woman’s distinctive mark, while putting Dylan’s superb writing in the spotlight. But these musical contributions are only a starting point. These covers are at their most powerful when they reveal new ways of understanding Dylan’s work from a female perspective. Such a perspective comes into focus with the one song that appears on both records: “You’re a Big Girl Now.”

Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now” is a tender, personal exploration of love and heartbreak. Its revealing style and subject matter make it everything a singer-songwriter is “supposed” to write. Hynde’s version, like Dylan’s, is intimate and acoustic; her voice cracks in all the right places. And yet, the gender shift inevitably changes the song’s emphasis and message. Where the repeated phrase “you’re a big girl” sounds more than a little bitter coming from Dylan to the lover who has grown away from him, in the mouths of both women, the phrase sounds like a piece of motivational self-talk, or at least a pep talk to another woman. When Dylan sings, “You were on dry land, you made it there somehow,” the listener understands that he has been left out in the rain. But when Hynde sings it, it sounds like an affirmation to the girl in question—a celebration that she has made it after all. Dylan’s bird metaphor, in which he sings a lonely song for the girl who has left him, sounds like personal empowerment when Hynde and Swift say it. As bright female harmonies join Swift on the line “I’m just like that bird,” we hear Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” that keeps on singing of hope despite the circumstances. And even a line that might read as deeply fragmented in a self-talk framework, like “I’m going out of my mind . . . ever since we’ve been apart” becomes a powerful argument for internal integration. From Hynde, this positive self-talk is confessional and self-forgiving; for Swift, it’s light and airy, even sexually empowering, as more bright voices join her in the lines, “I know where I can find you, in somebody’s room.” Coming from Dylan, that moment is a bitter admission that his girl is stepping out on him. For Swift, it comes across as joyful, buoyed up by bouncy, 70s-inspired bass lines, reverberating drums, and a juicy guitar solo. Bob Dylan wrote a sardonic song of love and loss. Hynde and Swift have created an empowering celebration of womanhood.

An interpretation like the one I have offered brings up an important question: how do we read Dylan’s songs from a female perspective? Should we? In truth, my first instinct is to take the songs as they are and to view the singers as storytellers—as vehicles for the story, no more. But the singer-songwriter genre practically begs for the more “confessional” element. Perhaps “confessional” is a term used to write-off important female work like that of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and others; a way to pin the work of female singer-songwriters in the corner of womens’ writing. Nevertheless, the entire singer-songwriter genre invites the listener to hear biography or at least emotional honesty in the songs. Critics can hardly help asking biographical questions of Dylan’s work. So, it is only fitting to discover new layers of meaning in Dylan’s songs when told through the female or queer voice. One of the most stunning examples of this phenomenon is Nina Simone’s 1971 version of “Just Like a Woman.” In it, she recasts Dylan’s sneering tirade against an immature lover as a deeply personal confession of inner turmoil. Barbara O’Dair explains the “Just Like a Woman” feminist controversy:

It’s hard to recall just what was offensive in “Just Like a Woman” . . . unless it was the combination of its potency and its ambiguity. Am I being insulted here, or what? It’s a catchy sentiment, or maybe just another put-down in the guise of wise. Women have objected to lines like “you fake just like a woman,” a charge that claims Dylan has swept all women into the category of devious manipulator. But then comes the line that reveals shame and vulnerability: “Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world.” (85)

It is precisely that ambiguity, shame, and vulnerability that Simone explores, as she changes the lyrics of the last chorus from third to first-person to make this connection explicit. In this song about a woman, Simone speaks to herself; she is both the elegant woman and the traumatized girl.

Several of the songs on these two records follow in Simone’s footsteps. Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” is a great example of a song that works just as well in the context of a hurting relationship as it does from the perspective of a woman singing to her own lost self. Of course, the song could be addressed to anyone, but Hynde’s vulnerable delivery, with its echoes of Nina Simone’s earlier self-addressed performance, supports the theory of a split self. After all, if Bob Dylan can split himself in two in “I and I,” why can’t Hynde? Swift, too, seems to split herself along blatantly gendered lines in her cover of “The Man in Me,” from New Morning. The aesthetic of New Morning comes closest to Swift’s general aesthetic, but this is no karaoke version of Dylan. Swift keeps Dylan’s gospel-inflected fervor, adding even more church organ, though her background vocals are layered and ethereal rather than choral and soulful. The obvious difference between the two arrangements is Swift’s gender. “The Man in Me” is a joyous declaration of love, which finds the narrator basking in the glow of being near the beloved. In her presence, he serves with gladness, is relieved of his personal storm clouds, and can be his true self, and it is all because of the feminine power of the woman who brings out the man in him. It doesn’t take a great imagination to hear queer and feminist implications when this song is recast in Swift’s voice. In addressing the song to “a woman like you,” Swift takes on a queer perspective as she speaks to a woman from a romantic point of view. With such lines as “it takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me,” and “the man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen,” she explores a broader spectrum of gender expression and identity. In this song, Swift unabashedly takes on the male role while singing to a woman and is therefore able to embody both simultaneously. But even without considering the possibilities for gender fluidity in Swift’s “The Man in Me,” the singer’s confident assumption of the male voice allows her to step boldly into traditionally “masculine” roles, taking on its associated power and authority in the process.

The empowerment available to women who try on a male perspective shines on Emma Swift’s rendering of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” from Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s version feels flippant; he comes across as a boy begging to get off the hook for his bad behavior when he sings, “I didn’t mean to treat you so bad / you shouldn’t take it so personal.” Emma Swift reclaims that playboy narrative for herself. Swift’s version of the song is slower and more deliberate than Dylan’s, with plenty of sustained guitar and a heartbeat kick drum. The first verse builds consistently into an almost exuberant chorus, as if Swift is systematically building a case for the end of the relationship to which the only possible response must be, “sooner or later, one of us must know.” Plenty of lines that seem bitter and accusatory from Dylan, like “I didn’t realize how young you were,” and “you just did what you were supposed to do,” sound earnest coming from Swift. And when she adds high piano and a trill of bells on the line, “When it started snowing,” the listener might almost think they have wandered into a Christmas song, albeit a rather violent one that includes angry eye-clawing. But even that line is empowering; a woman clawing out a man’s eyes is a crazy-lady trope; a man doing the same is either a sign of abuse or of an over-the-top emotional display. Either way, Swift’s clear, matter-of-fact delivery rings with equal parts self-confidence and compassion, bringing her out of the fray unscathed.

Because of its condescending elements, “One of Us Must Know” finds company in a long line of Dylan songs that Barbara O’Dair calls “put-down songs about women,” all of which contain material that have been interpreted as misogynistic, and many of which have been embraced by female Dylan fans. O’Dair says of this phenomenon that “Dylan uses macho stereotypes for a good story” (85). She asserts that women adopt these “macho” stories in order to tell their own, and she writes, “If machismo can have rebellious radiance . . . girls, too, can use this transgressive energy to assert themselves” (85). In this regard, Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Sweetheart like You” from Infidels is even more compelling than Swift’s “One of Us Must Know.” Jonathan Lethem says that “Sweetheart Like You” is “mainly remembered as an affront to feminists, for the title phrase, a seemingly obnoxious and banal seducer’s line . . . and for the verse couplet” about a woman’s place being in the home (164). Lethem goes on to brush this criticism under the rug, saying that “for most listeners the lines will be redeemed by both context and presentation” (164). If only those two lines were the least of the song’s offenses, Lethem might be right. After all, the controversial words, “a woman like you should be at home / That’s where you belong” can at least be read as the well-intentioned statement of a man of chivalry who wishes to take care of a woman. That notion may be dated or even sexist, but it is understandable. But even if we justify the good-natured sexism of those lines, many of the song’s lyrics move beyond corny to creepy. The title phrase isn’t the song’s only horrible pick-up line; he follows up with the gem, “I once knew a woman who looked like you / She wanted a whole man, not just half / She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child.” Then there are the interpretive complications brought by the song’s Biblical references. The narrator speaks of the woman’s father, who “has a house with many mansions, each one of them” with a “fireproof floor.” Here, Dylan puts his own spin on John 14:2, in which Jesus says, “My father’s house has many rooms” (New International Version). With this reference to Jesus and a heavenly home, the song’s sweetheart becomes a kind of Christ figure, or at least a martyr, subject to those who “hiss” and gossip behind her back. Perhaps these references are meant as compliments to the song’s sweetheart, but when the narrator tells her to “snap out of it, baby, people are jealous of you,” it is hard to tell whether such a comment is meant to be helpful or is yet another dubious pickup line. 

All of these lines hit differently when imagined as a woman speaking to another woman or a woman speaking to herself. They sound understanding, accepting, even helpful. As with other lines that sound condescending when coming from a man to a woman, “Snap out of it, baby,” takes on a different tone when self-directed, for who among us has not needed to give ourselves a wakeup call? What is this good girl doing in a place where she knows she should not be? It is a question many have asked themselves when their choices have led them to dark places. In this context, a potentially disturbing line like “Just how much abuse will you be able to take? / Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss,” takes on a wry, self-knowing tone. And when Hynde sings of “making the queen disappear with a flick of the wrist” we can almost imagine a woman playing that card trick on herself as she trades out her good girl image of a “queen” for a different, more scandalous one. At least, in this scenario, the choice is hers alone; no one is playing this sweetheart for a fool. With Hynde at the helm, “Sweetheart Like You” explores new territory. Although the song slides away from clear, unified interpretation no matter who sings it, having a female narrator sing the song to herself suddenly makes us suspect that a woman, too, may embody multitudes: Sweetheart, Scoundrel, Queen, Messiah? She contains them all.

Emma Swift’s cover of Dylan’s 2020 release, “I Contain Multitudes” explores the wide range of identities and attitudes available to women who are bold enough to claim them. In “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan connects himself to a broad poetic and cultural tradition—mostly male and Western—as he claims kinship with Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Edgar Allen Poe, among others. In addition to proclaiming his belonging in this Hall of Fame, the song reasserts Dylan’s complexity and his ever-shifting status as an unpindownable artist. O’Dair writes that Dylan’s “shape-shifting offers him greater aesthetic freedom” (85). In her cover of “I Contain Multitudes,” Emma Swift steps boldly into that freedom, claiming inner multitudes for herself and for all women. For anyone but Dylan it might sound overly boastful to rank himself among the litany of literary greats that litter his lyrics. For Swift, it is downright disruptive.       When Dylan-as-narrator sings of flashing the “rings on [his] fingers,” driving “fast cars,” eating “fast foods,” and hanging out with rough young men, the listener may read it as a sign that the aging rock star hasn’t lost his edge, regardless of Dylan’s intentions in these lines. Swift’s declarations of the same connote the confidence of the cool girl who does what she wants. She keeps company with “Indiana Jones and those British Bad Boys, the Rolling Stones,” but she is no groupie. In taking on the songs of Bob Dylan, she has already established her rightful place on stage as a rock star herself. Indeed, she claims that place boldly with a fresh performance that almost rewrites the tune of “I Contain Multitudes,” unearthing melodic nuances from Dylan’s recording and adding her own ornamentation with grace notes and appoggiaturas that enliven the music and support the poetry.

 Swift’s “I Contain Multitudes” feels revolutionary in the female voice; this claim of multiplicity is not just big in the way that Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” is big, which, despite its empowering vocal gyrations, still boils down to the woman’s ability to please a lover through the many versions of herself. Instead, “I Contain Multitudes” makes a powerful statement about artistry and personality in a space previously only available to men. A line like “I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods,” is fine for a man to say, but for a woman to admit to such “hysterical female” tropes is practically subversive. It’s all right, though; like Dylan, Swift has “no apologies to make.” Chrissie Hynde and Emma Swift are big girls now, and their tough, tender takes on these Dylan classics leave the listener in no doubt of their maturity.

 

Works Cited

Chrissie Hynde. Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan. BMG Rights Management (UK), May 2021.

Emma Swift, 2021, https://www.emmaswift.com/.

Emma Swift. Blonde on the Tracks. Patrick Sansone, Tiny Ghost Records, August 2020.

Grow, Kory. “Chrissie Hynde Brings It All Back Home on Her Dylan Covers LP ‘Standing in the Doorway’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 21 May 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/chrissie-hynde-standing-in-the-doorway-bob-dylan-review-1170654/.

New International Version. Bible Gateway. http://www.biblegateway.com Accessed 21 Dec. 2021.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Infidels (1983).” The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, edited by Kevin Dettmar, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 160–166.

O’ Dair, Barbara. “Bob Dylan and Gender Politics.” The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, edited by Kevin Dettmar, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 80–86.

Christopher Rollason. Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan. Gateshead (UK): Two Riders, 2021. 221 pp.

REVIEW BY Dave Junker, University of Texas at Austin

Not every book title is worth explicating. But Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan, is more than “a lure, a come on, a puzzle,” to borrow Stephen Scobie’s phrasing in his preface to this valuable contribution to the study of Bob Dylan (4). As a recognizable quote from “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” the title of this collection of essays serves as a wink and an invitation to those familiar with it—a not-that-exclusive club of rock fans, Dylan fans, and scholars. Thematically, it is also a useful quote for raising the curtain on Rollason’s main show: the “literary” aspects of Dylan. Yet after reading the book from cover to cover, one might also picture the phrase as the command of an imperious God, sung into the critic’s ear, translated something like this: “Go forth, Dr. Rollason, and find the sources of every literary allusion and intertextual crumb in these selected Dylan songs and bring them to me in an orderly fashion, with no mistakes, or else.” While this quest may not sound as entertaining as a picaresque Dylan narrative, the rewards of Rollason’s methodical quest are always bountiful, and should please not only his task-master muse, but also a wide audience of readers.

The intention behind the book title, of course, is to bring our attention to a specific understanding of “the literary,” one that privileges textual and formalistic elements, in particular the “complexity, ambiguity, figures of speech” and “multiple interpretability” of song texts. The literary tradition most relevant here is a decidedly canonical one: the King James Bible; Homer; Ovid; Shakespeare; Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley; Edgar Allan Poe; T.S. Eliot and the Beats. It is important to note that in identifying such a focus, Rollason situates this collection of essays within a field of Dylan studies that he himself has played a significant part in establishing. In fact, he is currently on the editorial board of this publication, the Dylan Review. Proving Dylan’s literary bona fides is another way of saying Dylan matters, and Rollason provides further proof that Dylan belongs in the company of our great writers and that a literary analytical framework can enrich his work and our experience of it. In his detailed and scrupulous way, Rollason outlines an impressive array of literary evidence that shows Dylan as a poet “in [whom] the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously,” a measure of greatness T.S. Eliot outlined in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” 

Certainly, there are limitations to Rollason’s circumscribed field of the literary. But the rewards of this collection of essays, many published over the course of the past twenty-five years, far outweigh the limits of its clearly defined scope. Seeing where the treasures appear, and in what hidden forms, offers surprises, revelations, and reconsiderations that more than compensate for the book’s inattention to voice and sound, for example, which themselves have legitimate claims as literary elements. Further, as those who have read some of the book’s previously published chapters well know, Rollason is an engaging guide, graceful writer and generous fount of knowledge far beyond the Western literary tradition. Above all, Rollason’s scholarly pathways are always well-lit by his deep affection and profound respect for the art, the artist, and the critical endeavor itself.

One of the most noteworthy things about the book is its coherence, consistency and efficiency, despite the fact that so many of the essays (ten of thirteen) have been previously published. As Scobie writes in his preface, in the chapters that focus on songs, Rollason “always begins with establishing a ‘default’ text . . . which may then be subjected to the conventional procedures of literary criticism” (6). This is indeed the case in all nine of the chapters dedicated to detailed readings of individual songs. These include insightful readings of some widely known and canonical songs such as “Desolation Row” and “Shelter from the Storm.” Other chapters feature lesser-known compositions like “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” “Lay Down your Weary Tune,” “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and the recent “Murder Most Foul.” Nuanced and engaging chapters on “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Dignity,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” and “Red River Shore” provide deserved recognition for a small sample of Dylan’s many diamonds in the rough. Despite the fact that some of these essays have two decades of space between, they never feel that way, as Rollason employs the same structure and critical voice throughout—as if he had always planned to assemble them as a book.

While some might wish to skip over Rollason’s “painstaking, meticulous” (Scobie 6) efforts to establish a default text, and get straight to the main course of song analysis, his careful diligence is a thing to witness. Every song is not just a case to be solved, but a sacred mystery requiring ritualistic devotion. I say ritualistic because, in most cases, the process fails to alter the seemingly predestined course of action—to defer to the original studio recording as the default text. In his analysis of “Shelter from the Storm,” for example, Rollason concludes, after a lengthy parsing of minor variations among printed and recorded versions, that “the discarded variants” are in “virtually all cases inferior to what we find in the Blood on the Tracks version” (81). This tone of abrupt finality is a little jarring at first. Why go through all the trouble of eliminating the significance of other song variants, if this is where we almost invariably end up? For non-Dylan scholars, this question will echo like a refrain throughout the book. But patient readers will come to appreciate the practical value of this process. As he explains later in the same essay, acknowledging the litany of variants has merit as “part of the song’s intertext” even if the variants are “not absolutely essential to its understanding” (81). This wisdom is borne out in many of the close readings: Rollason frequently calls upon this knowledge of textual variants to enrich the intertextual literary dialogue, add nuance to his close readings, and to reinforce or problematize currents in the critical conversation.

Rollason is also meticulous about classifying and categorizing relevant critical views, outlining the elements of prosody in every line and stanza, and rehearsing the facts at hand regarding self-evident allusions. He traces barely visible intertextual clues with microscopic focus while attempting to identify sources and contexts for intertextual echoes and literary allusions. He is always generous and judicious in recognizing scholarly precedent. Dylan critics Aidan Day, Michael Gray, Greil Marcus, Andrew Muir, Christopher Ricks, Richard Thomas, and Scobie make frequent appearances.

In less capable hands, Rollason’s method might make for a tedious, repetitious read. But Rollason is attentive to the needs and interests of a range of readers, not just the true believers. Most chapters are readable in a short sitting, and the arrangement of essays creates both a theoretical framework and narrative arc that makes this an accessible and informative read rather than a dense and lifeless tome. As the book jacket notes, Rollason has published roughly seventy articles on Dylan, from conference papers to blog posts to album reviews. Writing for such forums has no doubt honed his knack for short-form essays that serve a potential range of readerly expertise. All efficiently organized, no chapter is longer than twenty pages and most are fewer than ten (when excluding endnotes and bibliographies). Ten of the thirteen chapters are expanded versions of previously published articles or conference papers, in sources ranging from the Bob Dylan Critical Website and Rollason’s own blog, to an Edgar Allan Poe conference in Spain and a critical volume on Indian Writing in English. Those already familiar with any of these, or with Rollason’s work more generally, will be pleased to know that the three previously unpublished chapters are among the most engaging and insightful of the collection: these include one comparing Dylan’s views of nature in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Every Grain of Sand”; to a fine-tooth explication of “Desolation Row”; and a deserving treatment of the under-appreciated “Red River Shore.” In keeping with his style and method, these chapters provide critical context, technical classification, and the sources of every conceivable literary echo from the King James Bible and Shakespeare, to Shelley, Wordsworth and Poe.

Another wise structural choice Rollason makes is to open the book with a 2016 essay defending Dylan’s selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whether one cares about the controversy or not, Rollason’s agile defense of the award and shrewd interrogation of naysayers will still impress. By virtue of its position, the essay also becomes a justification for Rollason’s focus and methodology and a deeper view into his proclivities as a critic and scholar. His main line of argument is direct: For a prize “in the field of literature,” it would stand to reason that Dylan should be defended on strictly literary grounds, while other arguments can be dispatched by slotting them into “five types, namely:”

generic/categorical (“I have nothing against Dylan’s songwriting, but songwriting just isn’t literature”); generic/qualitative (“rock lyrics can’t be poetry and this award dumbs down the Nobel”); individual-centered (“Dylan doesn’t need the Nobel or the money”); politically correct/“lefter-than-thou” (“Dylan wrote against war, so he should refuse the prize”); and feminist/identitarian (“Dylan is just another white male”). (13)

To his credit, Rollason takes up each one with specific instances, though I did feel that he gave short shrift to the “feminist/identitarian” argument, ignoring the gravity of the cultural moment (the convergence of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the election of Donald Trump). Despite this, I walked away from the essay with a sense that not only was the award justified, but it was a triumph for artistic freedom, as he argues, and a hopeful note for a renewed public engagement with Dylan. At the close of this first essay, unchanged from the article’s initial publication, Rollason provides a rationale for Dylan the Nobel winner that could not have been more appropriately phrased if it had been conceived as the rationale for this book, published five years later:

By looking in this article at the objections to his Nobel I hope to have helped better establish the case in favour. However, in the end that case can only rest on Bob Dylan’s song texts, and in the wake of the Nobel, I invite those who do not know his songs to discover them, and those who know them to return to them—to read the words first, and then listen to the texts as song (20).

One might argue that Rollason gets the order wrong—that listening to the recordings and performances should come first, as Dylan is first a songwriter and singer. But the rebuttal he has just made to such “generic/categorical” anti-Nobel claims is enough to incline any reader to accept Rollason’s invitation to join him on his guided tour of chosen “song texts.”

In his chapter on “Desolation Row,” and the chapter comparing “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Every Grain of Sand,” Rollason highlights Dylan’s technical gifts as a poet, his engagement with the forms and ideas of Romanticism and Modernism, and his astonishing absorption of the core texts of Western high culture as well as “low” culture vernaculars. In dexterous prose, Rollason weaves partial quotes in with critical summary, along with identification of intertextual cues, full quotes of stanzas, and commentary on the implications of prosody and allusion. In his analysis of “Every Grain of Sand,” Rollason identifies subtle allusions to the diction and syntax from Genesis 4:1-15 and Mathew 10:30. Such references, when discussed in their Biblical context, help draw clearer distinctions between the “healing” depiction of nature in “Weary Tune” with the potentially “intimidating and oppressive” power of nature in “Every Grain of Sand” (53). His analysis in this chapter is also a good example of when Rollason’s disclosure of lyric variants ends up playing a meaningful role in his textual analysis. In the song’s closing couplet, “perfect finished plan” has a “comforting finality” that the variant “reality of man,” a phrase that “exclude[s] the natural world,” does not. Putting his conclusions in dialogue with Michael Gray’s, Rollason also considers the line “every sparrow falling” as an allusion to Mathew 10:29 and its echoes in Hamlet, “when the prince declares: ‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’” As a result, Rollason questions, or at least adds complexity to, Gray’s conclusion that the song’s narrator experiences a “reconciliation with God.” What kind of reconciliation is it, Rollason asks, where such an “image of cruelty” prevails?

For those who know the oeuvre of Rollason’s writings on Dylan, it may not come as a surprise to find his essay on “Bob Dylan’s Dream” (first published in 2000) positioned as the second chapter of the book, for it demonstrates a notable synergy between scholarly sleuthing and critical speculation. The implications extend not only to the interpretation of the song, but also to the conventional understanding of Dylan’s move away from protest. Setting his analysis of this “very strange song” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in dialogue with other commentary, sparse as it is, Rollason reveals a subtext that foreshadows Dylan’s later ambivalence about, if not outright renunciation of, protest. While this attitude came into clearer view on Another Side of Bob Dylan, Rollason shows us the seeds of disillusionment two records prior, a stunning suggestion given that it preceded one of the greatest protest albums of all time, led by the eponymous title track “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964). Nonetheless, after a lengthy discussion of “Lord Franklin,” the English folk ballad on which Dylan based his melody and some elements of the song’s narrative, Rollason makes a persuasive case that “’Bob Dylan’s Dream,’ . . . seems to be anticipating the death of the 1960s, expressing the fear that the decade’s hopes of liberation would disintegrate even as they were being spun” (36). Such a view might be glimpsed from an imaginative reading of the lyrics themselves. But backlit by “Lord Franklin,” Rollason shows how the song implicates “the problem of authority” with which the “radical youth movement” had to “come to terms.” Rollason elaborates:

Dylan’s group of friends, “quite satisfied” with their values and lifestyle, appears deceptively fixated on youth autonomy, with authority seemingly erased altogether. The new consciousness will not survive unless it manages to deal with authority, not as a purely external force (“the wicked world outside”), but as a presence within—the other voice in that inner dialogue between authoritarian and libertarian selves which Dylan, years later in the Infidels album in 1983, was to dramatize memorably as “I and I.”

Whether you reach the same conclusion as Rollason, it may not be possible to un-hear the intertextual echoes of this reading every time you re-listen to “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”

The chapter is one of many edifying moments in “the Literary Bob Dylan” that will influence my own experience of particular songs and of Dylan more generally. This is especially true of Rollason’s chapter on “Dylan and Edgar Allan Poe,” one of the few chapters that does not focus on particular songs (The others being his opening chapter on Dylan and the Nobel Prize, “Dylan and Salman Rushdie,” and his very brief concluding chapter, “Dylan Studies: The Future”). Here Rollason’s expert knowledge of Poe’s work and influences shows Dylan’s own deep knowledge of Poe’s work. Rollason goes far beyond instances of direct quotation, embedded quotation, and allusion to identify interesting parallels as cultural figures and between their shared aesthetics. Since Rough and Rowdy Ways, the presence of Poe in Dylan’s work would be hard for most people to miss. But Rollason shows how Poe’s gothic sensibility and imagistic landscape have been there all along.

Despite its contributions to Dylan scholarship, however, this chapter underscores what is a fair criticism of the book’s version of the literary. The endeavor of cataloging and classifying in  minute detail, as worthwhile as this review has shown such an endeavor to be, can sometimes have the effect of watching a spelling bee. The discussion on the page can start to feel more like a contest, where the naming of references and echoes, like the spelling of long or obscure words —removed from the dynamic world of language—becomes an end in itself. I sometimes found myself asking, what is the point of this detective work? What are we learning? For Dylan scholars, the answers may be obvious, but even to learned and culturally literate fans, the answers may be less clear.

Another point of criticism is what feels like an unstated edict in this collection to banish all talk of music, sound, texture, and performance. Limiting the field of analysis is necessary, but in many chapters I found myself questioning the ability to reach general conclusions about the meaning of a song text without serious attention to music, sound, texture, and vocal performance. In analyses of the dead poets, after all, we are encouraged to imagine the sound of things, and how poets cultivate personas that call on our experience of the spoken word in all its dynamic wonder. Why then can’t the sound of Dylan singing, within the context of music and song, be at least a reference point when it is right there in front of us? Such consideration would sometimes complicate text-only interpretations and at other times simplify them. But doing so seems important and justified, given the larger objectives of better understanding and appreciating Dylan’s songs and art. Ignoring sonic and performative dimensions makes textual analysis more controllable but can render the work of art inert and lifeless. As I reflect on this problem, the persistent echo of “Ballad of a Thin Man” echoes in my head:

Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks

With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks

You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books

You’re very well-read, it’s well-known

But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

No one could accuse Rollason of not being “very well-read.” But Dylan’s sneering criticism of erudition for its own sake, or for its use as a tool to legitimate status and power, offers a relevant counterpoint to Rollason’s strict adherence to the textual field and to traditional modes of literary analysis. On the page, this song’s disapproval of conventional respectability is impossible to miss. Despite all your learning, he is saying, you can’t see the deeper reality, whatever it is. This skepticism of the established order could be dismissed as one of the trite pronouncements of the 60s counterculture Dylan helped articulate. But it reaches another level of intensity entirely, like getting stabbed with a knife, when you can hear Dylan singing it. And isn’t this sound of Dylan’s voice, reverberating in the smoke-rings of our minds, an element of intertextuality as well?

Despite some misgivings about Rollason’s narrow definition of the literary, this book, for what it aspires to be, is a remarkable collection of criticism. It will appeal to a wide range of readers and help lay the foundation for a legacy of Dylan scholarship that will inspire new readings and new directions for years to come.

 

Bob Dylan in concert, Indiana University, November 7, 2021.

REVIEW AND ILLUSTRATION BY Evan Sennett, Indiana University

Bob Dylan Concerts Resume: The New Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour

As the silhouettes line the stage, Bob Dylan, now in his 80s, finds his seat in the center. He is mostly concealed by his upright piano, but he sits tall with a fiendish, lopsided grin. Happy to finally return to the stage? The maestro chuckles as he breathes his first lyric of the night: “What’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say.” He laughs at his own irony. Not one minute into his show and he’s apparently run out of ideas.

The opening tune is relatively obscure, like many of the songs chosen for the new Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour. Originally released on his 1971 album Greatest Hits Vol. II, “Watching the River Flow” tells the story of a frustrated insomniac stuck in an “all-night café,” tasked with observing controversies. The insomniac—possibly one of Dylan’s alter-egos—finds himself both troubled and fascinated by the discrepancies of the world: “people disagreeing everywhere you look / Makes you wanna stop and read a book.” Chaos breeds curiosity. The opening song is as much about writing as it is about watching. And Dylan can’t look away.

The first time I saw Dylan live, I couldn’t look away either. Excited as I was, I entered the music hall with caution. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion about the live Dylan experience. My high school English teacher warned me she had seen him years ago, and “he stunk.” So I expected something controversial. Songs I knew (and loved) would surely be present, but distorted. The question seemed to be, how will Dylan disappoint me tonight?

The show I saw in high school was part of the decades-long Never Ending Tour, a near constant run of concerts around the world, which finally did end in late 2019, as the COVID-19 crisis began. Playing many of his more recognizable hits from the 60s and 70s, along with a few songs from his then-new album Tempest (2012), Dylan treated his audience to a balanced mix of old and new. But there was little I could do to capture the experience. Unlike many rock concerts, Dylan’s shows strictly forbid photography. Perhaps as a way to enforce this policy, a dozen or so mirrors were scattered across the stage, directly facing the audience. If anyone attempted to take a flash-photo, the image would come back as a blur. In this chapter of the “Never Ending Tour,” Dylan hid behind the reflected image of his listeners. Aside from some grainy bootlegs on YouTube, Dylan, the uncapturable performer, is only visible in the present moment—he becomes his audience.

Now with Dylan in a new chapter of his career, the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour comes with no mirrors. The six-piece band stands in an arch around Dylan’s piano, all of them dressed head to toe in black. Charley Drayton on drums, Bob Britt and Doug Lancio play guitar, and Tony Garnier, a Dylan regular since the early days of the Never Ending Tour, returns to play electric and double bass. All the way stage left, Donnie Herron wears many hats, complementing Dylan’s piano with violin, accordion, steel guitar, and more. Each member of the band soaks in more stage lighting than Dylan himself. The front man of the shadows remains less visible than the rest.

Illustration of Bob Dylan singing into a microphone

Bob Dylan, the “philosopher pirate,” docks in Bloomington

Before long, Dylan presents his newest songs. Bloomington, Indiana, was only the fifth stop on the new tour, which means it was also only the fifth time most of the setlist has ever been performed live. With “I Contain Multitudes,” the opening track from Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan abandons his equipment stand. The mic cable becomes his prop, following him across the stage. Dylan looks like an old gospel singer (or stand-up comedian). He really does contain multitudes.

The Whitman-inspired song is a slow-moving confessional, and it invites reaction. Dylan points to the audience, and in turn, we applaud, shout, and whistle to the strange collage of names in the lyrics:

I’m just like Anne Frank . . . like Indiana Jones

And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones

I go right to the edge—I go right to the end

I go where all things lost—are made good again

The crowd punctuates each refrain of “I contain multitudes,” cheering him along as if the Nobel laureate were at a slam poetry reading. Dylan is all smiles, delighted, perhaps, at the active call and response. I’ve never seen him so interactive—so happy to perform. But how could a name like Anne Frank provoke such celebration at a rock concert?

In last year’s interview with the New York Times, Dylan notes that “the names themselves are not solitary. It’s the combination of them that adds up to something more than their singular parts.” The “trilogy” of names in this verse creates something, as a collective. The entire setlist works in this way. No random mashup of greatest hits, the new tour presents us with a thematic narrative, each song complicating the previous one. Separate from any individual song or album, the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour is a story of its own.

And the story Dylan weaves together, in this particular setlist, is a map of identities. The fictional Indiana Jones, himself a collage of inspirations from James Bond to Errol Flynn, is given unusual space to mingle with the famous diarist and holocaust victim. The Rolling Stones, pioneers in their own right, complete the trifecta. All three figures help make sense of Dylan’s own presentation as part rock star, part confessional author, and part archeologist of long forgotten treasures—a witness of the unimaginable and yet to be imagined.

If the names in “I Contain Multitudes” show us how Dylan sees himself, “My Own Version of You,” performed later in the concert, reveals how he combines these seemingly unrelated influences:

All through the summers and into January

I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries

Looking for the necessary body parts

Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

The macabre description makes him chuckle. He can’t help but narrate this sinister theme with half a smile. The song details the Frankenstein-like process of taking bits and pieces from songs across recording history, finally coalescing into the performance we see tonight. The resulting monster is difficult to identify: a kind of waltz, kind of spoken word poem, topped off with an extended slide guitar solo by Herron. The enigmatic piece eventually fades out with Dylan slamming disparate piano keys, searching for some coherent meaning with his fingers, but mostly landing on stale notes that go nowhere at all.

Such is the creative process—the procedure is simultaneously a tribute to older songs, and an assault on its many influences. After all, to grave-rob something it has to be dead first. Carving out a liver here, a heart there, Dylan transmits some motifs from the past and abandons others. Creating is, for Dylan, both a celebration and a violation. And the live performance might just be that final “strike of lighting” which brings everything to (new) life.

This kind of thematic grit works well with Dylan’s famous vocal timbre—scraggly, nasally, and mumbling. But tonight his vocal mix is crystal clear, like a whisper. In “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” Dylan draws out every word with an emotional vibrato. Suddenly, the “you” in each song belongs, not to some distant lover, but to us:

I’m giving myself to you, I am

From Salt Lake City to Birmingham

From East L.A. to San Antone

I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone

The musician’s tour schedule becomes a love ballad, and we are on the receiving end of that romance. It’s a kind of vulnerability you would never expect from the man who at one time shielded his face behind a thick layer of white makeup. And here we sit, witnessing a performance with our own masks. Except we cover our faces to prevent the spread of disease, while Dylan devotes himself to us.

Even the older songs, scattered through the setlist, grapple with the complex dialogue of creating music, and the responsibilities at both ends of that conversation. We might continue to read the “you” in older classics like “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and “To Be Alone with You” as quasi-romantic confessions, an open-ended bond between Dylan and his listeners. Playing these songs from his own past, the eighty-year-old singer momentarily forgets a phrase. He quickly glances at a lyric sheet on top of his piano, and without skipping a single measure, recovers. “I almost forgot all the words to that,” he admits after the song ends. “I almost did!” But he didn’t. The audience laughs, comforted by his humility.

Not one to get caught up in nostalgia, Dylan instead keeps only one eye on the past, with the other on the future. “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” remains a mainstay of Dylan’s setlist in recent years. A relic from his back catalogue, the song also forecasts a distant day when “everything is gonna be diff’rent.” As a fan, it is good to know that Dylan has yet to compose his greatest work. But the song is also a reminder that Dylan himself bears a heavy burden: he must always find new ways to top himself. It’s an impossible goal. He has a method, however. As he reflects on his older material, he also searches for points of identification in the very songs which inspired him in the first place.

If we’re not careful, we might consider this never-ending task of scavenging meaning from old songs, and lifting them into new ones, a kind of plagiarism. But Dylan is no plagiarist—he’s a philosopher pirate. At least, that’s what he calls himself in “Key West,” one of his newer tracks. A shift from warm, red lighting to tropical blue and pink, the live performance of “Key West” is more than a confessional. It’s a downright ode to piracy.

“I’m searching for love,” he claims, “for inspiration / On that pirate radio station.” His voice meanders with a slow, melody-less accordion. For the next ten minutes, Dylan is in control of a trance. The spell harnesses visions of even more influences, all of them, in some way, related to the author. Dylan spins a song in which poets of the past were created in his image: “I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track / Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac / Like Louie and Jimmy and Buddy and all of the rest.” The six influences in question cast a pall over the song. Is this a celebration, or a dirge?

And where does Dylan fit in this canon? Perhaps he meets this question of legacy with ambivalence, surrendering himself to his listeners, his partners-in-crime, for an answer. We have determined his status before, and consider him a living legend. Not that Dylan seeks out any particular label, but he does accept what he is given:

Twelve years old and they put me in a suit

Forced me to marry a prostitute

There were gold fringes on her wedding dress

That’s my story but not where it ends

She’s still cute and we’re still friends

Down in the bottom—way down in Key West

By this point in the song, we are well into the trance. He may not be able to control his legacy, but he can control these hypnotic episodes on stage.

The dream slowly ending, it came time to introduce the band. Dylan usually doesn’t offer a lot of banter on stage. But on his way out he did have this to say: “Alright now, on behalf of my band we want to thank you for coming out tonight—we really do. It’s really good to be in a place—a university—especially where people think for themselves.” Dylan never patronizes an audience, but he does trust us. He seems to believe that we will interpret the performance correctly, even if he offers no clear thesis. I might take a liver, and you might take a heart, but we aren’t required to take anything at all. No specific message can be found. If Dylan endorses anything, it’s discrepancy, not resolution. At the very least, controversy is stimulating—enjoy it!

Sometimes the conflict of ideas—the ways in which they clash together, polyphonically—is exactly what Dylan is after. And the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour does not shy away from polyphony. Dylan can’t tell us how to resolve conflicts, only how to embrace them as creative opportunities. Borrowing ideas from the American music canon, Dylan faces the challenge of placing himself among that list. As he mentions in one of his new songs, he is “no false prophet.” Thanks to us, he’s the real thing.

Jim Curtis. Decoding Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture. North Carolina: McFarland, 2019. 177 pp.

REVIEW BY John H. Serembus, Widener University

Whenever I read a review of a book I may be interested in, I like to know something about the reviewer so that I can put the review into context.  It is only fair, then, that I give you some details about my perspective on Dylan and my background.

First off, I am not a Dylan scholar.  Yet, at the same time, I am not merely a fan. I do possess all his albums in some form or other, I have attended twenty or so Dylan concerts over the years, and I have read a fair amount of books about and by Dylan. The relationship is more intimate than merely a fan though certainly less than a scholar. As a friend and colleague said to me in the 1980s, Bob Dylan has provided “the soundtrack for our lives.”

Secondly, I am a professor of Philosophy with a specialization in Logic and an abiding interest in its dark side — paradox. The former informs my review of the book. The latter explains my interest in Dylan.

The author, Jim Curtis, is an accomplished scholar and academician. One of the great strengths of the book is his Renaissance-like command of the materials of which he speaks as well as all things Dylan. Another great strength is that the author is literally a contemporary of Dylan. Born less than a year before Dylan, he grew up within the same cultural milieu as Dylan with similar influences and experiences. The rest of us (me, just barely) can only imagine what it was like to come of age in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Decoding Dylan runs 169 pages, which includes copious chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and an extremely thorough index. It obviously is not intended to give a complete account of Dylan’s life and works but rather focus primarily on his output during the 1960s. Interestingly, it begins with an original poem (song lyrics?) by the author: “Songs for Passersby,” which is an homage to Dylan spun from biographical strands used by the author to support his claims. This is then followed in the customary way by a preface and introduction.

The body of the text contains eight chapters divided into two sections and a conclusion.  Section I, “Theories and Practices” contains three chapters offering: a biography, an account of Dylan’s early years in New York, and Dylan’s affinities with Franz Kafka, T. S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso. Section II, “Songs and Songwriting” contains fives chapters which: detail what Curtis calls “Songs of Transcendence” from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, “Songs of Assimilation” from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, tables of rhyme forms from Dylan’s songs of the 1960s as well as those of some Tin Pan Alley and other American Songs, a comparison of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and a chronological comparison of the early successes of Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen. Curtis concludes his account with a discussion of the paradoxes of Dylan.

The very first sentence of the introduction tells us that his purpose in writing the book “is to help the reader understand the often puzzling, confusing songs that Bob Dylan wrote during the 1960s” (p. 4). Hence, the need to decode Dylan. There are three things to unpack here: there is a message in these songs, the messages are hidden, and that a key exists to unlock the messages. But in some sense the key itself is hidden, or, at the very least, it is not as straightforward as a cryptogram where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters in the message and letters in the key. The message connects to what Curtis calls the “markers of creativity.” In particular, the four major markers of: cultural marginality, ethnicity, relationship to father, and birth order (10). If one can understand these markers with respect to Dylan, then one can then decipher the messages of his songs. Given the space constraints on this review, I will focus on just two of the four markers — ethnicity and birth order.

The author attempts to account for these markers in Dylan by looking at “other major figures in cultural history” (10). I will focus on just one of those figures — Pablo Picasso. Curtis goes to great lengths to establish that Dylan had read or had an opportunity to read Picasso’s Picassos, Picasso: An American Tribute (58) and Life with Picasso. He notes that Dylan’s own words in Chronicles acknowledge a familiarity with Picasso and the impact he had on the art world with Dylan wanting to “be like that” (57).  He goes on to claim that Dylan and Picasso “have a remarkable series of affinities” (64).  He then lists no fewer than seventeen affinities between the two men! To this reviewer there is less here than what meets the eye. It may be interesting to note these affinities, but they can’t serve as proof for any claim. One can find coincidences between any two people.

Frankly speaking, using ethnicity as one of the “markers of creativity” is fraught with difficulty. The author wants to claim that Dylan has Jewish ethnicity, and this helps explain his genius and his affinity to others who also have the same ethnicity. Therefore, for example, the author compares Dylan with Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen. Yet how does one determine ethnicity? There are no real objective markers, and assuming there are leads to stereotyping. If it is a matter of self-identifying, then how can one be sure that any two people identify as a certain ethnicity for the same reasons?  

The first-born marker, though less controversial, also has major failings. If it is intended as a psychological theory, it runs counter to the hallmark of every scientific theory — falsifiability. Curtis talks about Dylan, Streisand, and Allen as being first-born. But there is a problem: Streisand was born second. Rather than questioning the merits of the claim of the theory, the author points out that though she was born second, she was born six years after her older sibling and that fact makes her, in effect, first-born. This ad hoc revision of the criterion does not pass the smell test. In addition, this account lumps first born and only children together without any proof that the experiences of the two are sufficiently similar. I have no problems with the first-born account being a useful fiction. I do have a problem with it being used as part of a proof of someone’s creativity.

The final point that the author makes in his conclusion is worth emphasizing. It is “Dylan’s refusal to choose between high culture and popular culture that makes him a man in the middle” (148-149). The man is the middle has a foot in both worlds, sprinkling high culture references into popular culture songs. He is a participant in both without an affinity to either. This allows the author to justly claim that Dylan is paradoxical. His lyrics are strewn with paradoxes resulting from his two-culture habitation, such as “I was so much older then / I am younger than that now.”

Given some of the preceding paragraphs, you may think this reviewer would not look favorably upon the book. But the truth is, I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable read. The book is a lot like the Dylan songs of the 1960s that Curtis noted may be “puzzling and confusing,” but are nonetheless worth listening to. It may not stand up to rational scrutiny, but it is certainly a useful fiction.

Alessandro Portelli. Bob Dylan, pioggia e veleno: “Hard Rain,” una ballata fra tradizione e modernità. Donzelli Editore, 2018.

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

If you’re reading these words, it means you’re that kind of Bob Dylan passionate who’s willing to deepen his or her knowledge on the matter. You’ve read bios, you’ve read essays, and you’re serious about it. So you’ve probably read many times that this or that song draws or quotes from or refers to this or that source, this or that song. Usually this is the kind of information we retain in our mental bank of data, but if that’s all we do with it, we are erasing that info at the same time. It becomes a sterile notion. It has no life. Well, if that perspective frustrates you, this is the book you’ve been dreaming of.

Working on a single song, Portelli provides us with a voluminous experience. Now don’t get me wrong, Bob Dylan’ songs are alive. They are about life, they have veins and exude life, but often they keep a certain aura of mystery, which is part of their magic. Meanwhile their author is a real person, not just a persona, and he gathers inputs and draws inspiration from everywhere and anytime. Exegesis is often valuable and even necessary. Portelli walks us through a land where time, space, and culture overlap, and the destination is a memory that, when it exists, is already tradition — not unlike the traditional music that Bob Dylan cherishes and deems immortal.

Something happened, maybe, centuries ago, in Italy, and somebody decided to tell a story, in the ballad form, though where and when exactly the episode took place is not known. It’s a tragic story: a man comes home to his mother and, by what he narrates, she realizes he’s been poisoned by his lover. He’s going to die. So she starts asking him what will he leave and to whom, hence the song’s title, “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” o “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man’s Will” or also “The Poisoned Man”). The ballad goes on in the form of a dialogue, question and answer, which offers us a parade of situations that build up in a perfect “relative-climax.” That ballad traveled, locally in Italy, from region to region, from dialect to dialect, and eventually through Europe, landing in Great Britain, where, after having gone through a linguistic sieve and a synthesizing process, it became “Lord Randall.” 

What usually happens with traditional songs, especially those that stick around in the collective imaginary, is that they become archetypes, the characters become functions and the tales become symbols. Portelli examines the Italian song’s meaning, but above all its legacy and its trail all the way down to the apocalyptic vision of “A-Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Intertwining his own memories and experiences as ethnomusicologist (one of Portelli’s many fields) wandering throughout the country recording traditional songs and preserving the oral tradition, the author allows us to time travel and to witness an alchemic development. 

One of the questions I find myself asking more and more frequently, reading Dylan-themed essays — especially those connecting him with ancient Greek and Romance languages cultures — is: was he that well-read when he was that young? Is it possible? Sometimes the descriptions of Dylan’s hyperliterary youth seem a bit of a stretch, yet this is not the case with the thesis introduced in Pioggia e veleno. Bob Dylan places himself — accidentally, or unaware — at the crossroad between tradition (the past) and evolution (the future): this specific song blossoms on a ground that had been fecundated centuries before.

The songwriter stands at the intersection of popular culture and dazzling new poetry, of oral tradition and culture industry (and its reproducibility), of spoken word, live performance, and music. The song is the result of one million steps walked by ten thousand people within an invisible map, people moved by the compass of fate, and then the song becomes a tool to expand that map’s borders. Thanks to Portelli, we’re now able to retrace some of those steps, getting close to the song’s source; we can navigate that ethereal land and meet the blue-eyed boy across time. 

Portelli identifies numerous technical details about the composition of the lyrics that are relevant when comparing the two songs: the use of anaphora and alliteration, for instance. But while the author offers insights about the literary devices, he’s an experienced and educational popularizer and never exceeds in technicalities.

Portelli practices the noble art of digression, but that doesn’t take unnecessary space. On the contrary, it usually produces informative paragraphs or footnotes that add to the overall comprehension of the subject. The digressions are like telltale signs that shed a light on the folk map which leads to the creation of “Hard Rain,” the solid foundation on which Bob Dylan started to draw his own poetic map. And this is the only point where I would respectfully disagree with one concept the author expresses: he says that in the very moment that the songwriter composed this song, he was prodigiously hanging in the balance between two worlds with a power he would never find again. While it is possibly true the young balladeer known as Bob Dylan was in a state of ecstasy, touched by otherworldly perfection, close to the purest folk form (if that’s even a thing), I would say that he has been able to find an equally powerful voice at other moments in his career. He has, for one example, added modernist elements and created a completely new language that has been explored and expanded for decades — but this consideration is of secondary importance in the light of the extensive work of detection presented here.

The book will be published in English soon, by Columbia University Press, and the good news is that it’s a revised and expanded edition with an extra focus on the oral tradition.

It goes without saying that Alessandro Portelli knows his song well before…