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…

Luca Grossi. Bob Dylan in Hell: Songs in Dialogue with Dante – part I. Arcana, 2018. 128 pps.

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

Lately there has been a new flow of Bob Dylan books. Maybe this stream is a little bit of a Nobel aftermath, or maybe it’s simply Time that going by helps us to put things in the correct perspective. Either way, Bob seems to be settling in among the Classics, or at least knockin’ on their door, and this short essay surely points us in that direction, from Hell to Heaven, following an Italian poet from the thirteenth century’s tracks. The book is the result of a university dissertation and it had to be edited for publishing purposes. Indeed, the original project was supposed to examine the three cantiche and, allow me to say, we long for the complete project to be released.

This book’s original nature is one of its weak points. While the author’s voice is clear and intriguing, what we can perceive, from time to time, is that he addresses an audience of people who are familiar with the subject of Dante, while a more divulgative approach would have been the proper choice to draw more readers and to draw them to both poets. Unluckily, as relevant as Dante is in modern culture and history, he’s not everybody’s bread and butter. His language is, alas, archaic, and it needs more paraphrase and context than what is found in this book. Don’t get me wrong, the author dwells upon the notions he means to propose long enough to make his point clear, but sometimes the reader can feel a lack of details that would be useful for comprehension. Surely, though, the person that would buy this kind of book is interested in investing time to read it, so why spare ink when it would only make the reader happier, more fulfilled? The flip side is that the author proposes an interesting but daring idea, so he needs to lavish us with strong points to support it. We know how (anal)ytical Bob’s fans can be. Sometimes they devote themselves to a new input like missionaries, or sometimes they get feisty and dismiss it completely. Of course, the fans can’t be an author’s compass, but in this dialogue they are his counterpart. 

At the end of each chapter (each analyzed song corresponds to a chapter), the author discusses the metric scheme of the song and then poses a kind of moral question (we all know where those answers are blowin’). The scheme as it is doesn’t give us new inputs, and I feel it should either be improved or removed. It should provide us with more food for thought; otherwise, it remains a sterile element. The question, however, while it would probably be better placed at the end of the song’s analysis, is delicate and suggestive of the book’s key point: not simply that the American Bard probably crossed paths with the Sommo Poeta, and that he drew some inspiration from his main work, the Divina Commedia, but that certain moral/ethical questions tend to come back to those sensitive enough to realize that the world is going wrong. What I appreciate about this perspective is that Grossi is suggesting, or even better, conjuring (in a less playful way than Scorsese) the idea for us. He’s not arrogant nor presumptuous when planting this seed in our mind, even in our conscience.

Many personal accounts of the Song and Dance Man describe him like a sponge, and that’s the visual I want to call to mind here. It would be easy to question the author’s perspective, possibly claiming that Bob couldn’t have been so well read in Dante’s matter at such a young age, when rambling around New York City’s streets, and that is probably true. Some of the details that Grossi works on are minute, and at times the analysis sounds a bit stretched (“All the Tired Horses” and “Union Sundown” chapters for instance), but this happens in minor cases. The author’s ideas come across as revelations, as thunder, when we read the pages devoted to “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Desolation Row.” We can easily imagine the young Dylan spending time in libraries as he did, or reading essays passed on by Suze Rotolo, or maybe titles found in the house of the intellectuals and bohemians they were spending time with. In Chronicles we get a taste of the environment he was immersed in. We can easily picture him going through a Dante compendium or essay about the Divina Commedia’s themes, its questions, its metaphors, and Dante’s journey from Hell to Heaven. We can imagine the youngster’s swirling brain, the wannabe poet, projecting himself on such a journey. Yeah, that seems to be a safe assumption, and on that journey, well, there are surely a lot of special people and events waiting for a visionary narrator to come and immortalize ‘em. 

One of the most inspiring aspects of a great artist’s body of work is that it is open, it gives us room to project what resonates for us, and it usually works on a subjective level. It can also be a trigger for future artists, inspiration that passes through generations in mysterious and symbolic ways. To solve the mystery, we sometimes need a detective, a critic like Grossi, a Dante scholar who has clearly mastered his subject. I won’t spill the beans about the spellbinding work he performs at the peak of his treatment, but I will say that his readings of “Blind Willie McTell” and “Seven Curses” leave us with some serious digging to do.

We need more of this research, a complete and exhaustive essay, that walks us as Virgil walked Dante through this challenging and fascinating kind of detection. But if anybody happens to visit Italy, they better check the theatrical adaptation of Grossi’s book. A show has been made out of the book: two musicians and the author give a live rendition of the text, perhaps because 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Celebrations will go on all over the country, online and in person (as soon as it is safe and healthy). This circus will be in town.

The World of Bob Dylan. Ed. Sean Latham. Cambridge University Press, 2021, xix + 349 pp. Hardback. ISBN-13. 978-1-108-49951-4. GPB 20. [1]

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent Scholar, Luxembourg

The volume under review is a multi-author study of the figure and work of Bob Dylan from an extremely wide range of points of view. It is edited by Sean Latham, Walter Professor of English and Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa — also home to the Bob Dylan Archive and the Woody Guthrie Center — hosted the major conference held from 30 May to 2 June 2019 under the title “The World of Bob Dylan” (in which this reviewer was a participant), although it should be stressed that this volume, despite the shared name, is not the proceedings of that conference. It may also be useful here to distinguish between: the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies (an academic research cell); the Bob Dylan Archive (a collection of over 100,000 objects for consultation on appointment, purchased in 2016 by Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with the University of Tulsa, and held at the city’s Gilcrease Museum); and the Bob Dylan Center (to be the public face of Dylan in Tulsa, scheduled for opening to the general public in 2022).

The World of Bob Dylan is presented as “the first published project to emerge from the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies” (xiv). It brings together 28 texts (introduction, chronology and 26 chapters proper) by a total of 26 contributors, the editor included. 18 are male and 8 female, while 22 are described as based in the US, one in Canada, two in the UK and one in Denmark. Most chapters appear to have been purpose-written for the volume. Two at least, however, originate in the 2019 Tulsa conference. The chapter by Greil Marcus is explicitly credited to his Tulsa keynote speech; that by Ann Powers, another keynoter, reads as if the publication of her text from the event; and there may be more. The role of the archive as a new determinant in Dylan studies is reflected in the fact that two of the contributors quote and formally credit material retrieved via their personal research activities there. The chapters read in general as fresh and new, although several have not been updated insofar as their authors refer to Dylan’s Never Ending Tour as if it were still never ending, rather than forced into stoppage by the circumstances of which we are all aware.

Sean Latham introduces the volume, recalling the multiplicity of Dylan’s work and stressing how each chapter offers a different approach to understanding its “depth, complexity and legacy” (2). He states that the collection aims at a broad readership: while written by experts and scholars, the essays are designed to be accessible both to long-term fans and to the curious. After the introduction comes a six-page-plus chronology, the joint work of Latham and Kevin J. Dettmar. The essays that follow are grouped into five parts: “Creative Life,” “Musical Contexts,” “Cultural Contexts,” “Political Contexts,” and “Reception and Legacy.”

Part I (“Creative Life”) opens with the chronology and continues with “The Biographies,” an essay by Andrew Muir, author of several Dylan-themed books, including most recently The True Performing Of It, a study of Dylan and Shakespeare. Here, he examines the merits and characteristics of the various published lives of Bob Dylan — those by Anthony Scaduto, Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin, Bob Spitz, Howard Sounes, and Ian Bell — coming down in favor of Heylin as best biographer, thanks above all to his “formidable” research (27). The essay contains detailed comparative analysis and will surely be found useful by future students, as I am not aware that this particular task had been done before. Muir also stresses the “game-changing” role of the Bob Dylan Archive, henceforth a must-consult stopping-place for all aspiring biographers: “the future of Dylan biographies is clearly going to be ‘post-Tulsa’” (30).

The next chapter is by Sean Latham and is entitled “Songwriting.” The author ranges over Dylan’s “massive” song catalogue (32), noting how the songwriting process of “Like a Rolling Stone” can today be followed in detail thanks to the Cutting Edge release, and offering fresh and careful readings of the likes of “Song to Woody” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” He praises the Basement Tapes as amounting to a “graduate seminar in American music,” and “Love and Theft” as showing an “extraordinary depth of learning,” to be juxtaposed with Dylan’s selections on his Theme Time Radio Hour (41). In this area too, the research benefits of the archive are stressed, alongside its “sheer size and depth,” and Latham forecasts that now we have it, “unraveling Dylan’s writing processes will take decades of work” (33).

Keith Negus offers an essay with the title “The Singles: A Playlist for Framing Dylan’s Recording Art.” Dylan is known primarily as an album artist, but here Negus focuses on the single, viewing the 45 as a conduit to a more general listening public and thus as historically a means of broadening the audience for at least some of Dylan’s songs. Ten singles (some as recorded by Dylan, some in cover versions) are examined in detail, not from the viewpoint of sales or chart statistics, but from that of the messages communicated through this format. They range from “Blowin’ in the Wind” (in the Peter, Paul and Mary cover) through “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” to the Grammy-winning “Things Have Changed.”

There follows part II, “Musical Contexts,” whose essays trace Dylan’s relationship to an unfolding series of musical genres: folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, roots music and the Great American Songbook. To start with the first, Ronald D. Cohen’s chapter “Folk Music” examines Dylan’s relationship with that genre. Cohen shows (leaning, legitimately enough, on Chronicles) how Dylan — described by Nat Hentoff in the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sleevenotes as “so powerful and so personal and so important a singer” (69) — gradually became part of the folk milieu to the point of being a seeming fixture there (Cohen quotes from Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: “the folk world was his oyster” (70)), until he dramatically dissociated himself from that same milieu. The story is scarcely new, but Cohen’s is a sound retelling.

The next chapter is by Greil Marcus and, as we have seen above, replicates his keynote lecture at the Tulsa conference, beyond any doubt one of the highlights of that event. Marcus entitles his text: “The Blues: ‘Kill Everyone Ever Done Me Wrong’” (the subtitle is a reference to the blues number “Railroad Bill,” recorded in 1929 by Will Bennett, and in 1961 by Dylan on the Minneapolis party tape). The chapter opens, with a somber sense of place, by recalling the notorious white supremacist massacre of 1921 which decimated the African American community in Tulsa — “the worst single racial crime in the United States after slavery” (73). What follows is, despite the title, not some kind of conspectus of Dylan’s multifaceted relationship with the blues (a herculean task, best attempted to date by Michael Gray). Rather, the author looks closely at three chosen aspects of the subject, namely: “Railroad Bill” in the Bennett and Dylan versions and its significance as an “outlaw blues”; Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and Dylan’s cover of the song on his first album; and, leaping to 1997, Time Out of Mind, seen by Marcus as “Bob Dylan’s great blues album” (74) and of which he comments: “I can’t recall a major artist . . . offering people anything as bleak, as barren, as hopeless as this record” (84-85). As always, Greil Marcus, as music writer and cultural commentator, approaches his subject-matter with simultaneous expertise and passion, brought to bear on both the details and the bigger picture.

Gayle Wald’s chapter, “Gospel Music,” examines what the author considers to be the “least examined” and “most poorly understood” of Dylan’s musical modes (88), and notes the crucial role played by African American female artists in that side of his work. She stresses the importance of the women backup singers for Dylan’s live performances in his “Christian period,” seeing them as “co-creators” of that phase of Dylan’s work (95), and also examines Dylan’s later personal and professional relationship with Mavis Staples.

Leigh Edwards, in her chapter, “Country Music: Dylan, Cash, and the Projection of Authenticity,” looks at the Dylan/Johnny Cash relationship and how their collaborations “activated new potential” in country music (110). She also unearths a song recorded by Cash in 1965, “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” about the original John Wesley Hardin, as a point of comparison with the title track of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding — a work which she sees as reflecting a “mixture of folk and mass culture” (108). This chapter makes for useful reading alongside the 2019 Bootleg Series issue Travelin’ Thru.

Ira Wells writes on “Rock Music” — a well-worn Dylan theme on which it is not easy to say something new. The author retraces the familiar Newport 65 story, but also stresses, with the benefit of hindsight, how the poetic turn in Dylan’s lyrics as he embraced rock conferred a “new intellectual credibility” on the emerging genre (118), heralding the “exploration of the individual self within a mass cultural form” (119). Kim Ruehl, in the chapter “Roots Music: Born in a Basement,” finds a comparable turning-point in 1967, viewing the Dylan/Band collaborations that became famous as the Basement Tapes as the effective creation of a new genre, namely roots music, and the marking — here evoking Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic/The Old, Weird America — of a “pivotal moment in the history of American music” (124).

The final essay on musical genre is provided by Larry Starr’s “The Great American Songbook: Better Duck Down the [Tin Pan] Alley Way, Lookin’ For a New Friend.” The wordplay in the title reflects the author’s contention that we should not have been surprised by Dylan’s turn to the Great American Songbook in the three “Sinatra albums.” Clearly an admirer of the trilogy, Starr believes it contains “potential material for several books” (134), meanwhile offering his chapter as “a modest guide for future investigation” (134). He goes on to analyze several cases of Dylan’s recourse to the Songbook: the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Blue Moon’ from Self-Portrait in 1970, “the only Great American Songbook selection to appear on any officially released Dylan album prior to [2015]” (135-136); “Beyond the Horizon” from Modern Times in 2006, which (this was news to me) takes its tune and its atmosphere from the Bing Crosby classic “Red Sails in the Sunset”; and “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” viewed in their context on Shadows in the Night. Starr concludes that “Dylan is helping to keep this repertoire alive” (143).

In part III (“Cultural Contexts”), two essays take on the issue of the literary Dylan, inevitably in a post-Nobel context. The Danish academic Anne-Marie Mai — incidentally the volume’s only contributor from outside the Anglosphere — has a particularly wide brief in a chapter entitled “World Literature.” She lists key literary references in the songs and Tarantula, and, in an analysis that needed doing, dissects Dylan’s Nobel lecture, stressing the points in common between the three classics he focuses on (the Odyssey, Moby Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front). Mai concludes that with Bob Dylan, “world literature came within reach for a growing audience” (168). Florence Dore, in her contribution “American Literature,” poses the question of Dylan’s intellectual respectability as songwriter: “What are the Bob Dylan Archive and the Tulsa University Institute for Bob Dylan Studies doing within university walls ?” (148-149). While incidentally noting the Dylan references in contemporary US authors, most notably Don De Lillo, as well as Dylan’s place on the faultline between “high” and “low” culture, Dore, rather than as might be expected examining Dylan’s debt to classic writers like Whitman or Poe, foregrounds the literary claims of a less obvious protagonist, namely Huddie Leadbetter or Leadbelly. She narrates how the blues artist was invited in 1934 to play before a panel on “Popular Literature” (including no less a folklorist than Alan Lomax) at the convention of the Modern Language Association, an episode that advocates for the blues as a form of literature. Dore thus effectively contends that popular music lyrics could be part of American literature well before Dylan, let alone his Nobel – which award, she concludes, “confirms the deep overlap between American literature and rock’n’roll” (156). Still in the literary register, the chapter “The Beats” by Stephen Belletto examines in fresh detail a familiar textual current, namely the influence on Dylan of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat Generation writers. Belletto includes close contrastive analyses, pairing Ginsberg’s “Howl” with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels with the song known to have absorbed elements from it, “Desolation Row.”

The contribution by Damian Carpenter, “Theatre,” moves us away from the music/literature dyad and into Dylan’s wider multimedia world. The author looks at various aspects of Dylan and the theatre, including the influence of major theatrical figures like Bertolt Brecht, using biographical material from Chronicles and A Freewheelin’ Time, Dylan’s later collaborations with Jacques Levy and Sam Shepard, and Conor McPherson’s 2017 play Girl from the North Country; we also, intriguingly, learn of Dylan’s own “abandoned play manuscripts” (182).

With the chapter “Visual Arts: Goya’s Kiss,” Raphael Falco broadens the discussion to include Dylan’s production in the plastic arts (the Goya reference is to a comment in a 2001 letter to Dylan from Tony Bennett, retrieved from the archive). Falco enumerates the half score or so exhibitions of Dylan’s visual art that have taken place since the first in Chemnitz (Germany) in 2007, in prestigious venues including New York’s Gagosian Gallery, as well as London’s Halcyon Gallery and even its National Portrait Gallery. He stresses the multigeneric nature of Dylan’s visual art production, from paintings and drawings to metal gates. Falco notes that this “flurry of exhibitions in the last fifteen years testifies to the surprising productivity of Dylan the visual artist” (198), also drawing attention to the visual art references in the songs (“When I Paint My Masterpiece” being but one example) and concluding that “Dylan’s songs will always be his first art” but that “when he alludes to the other arts in his songs they are often the same arts he himself practices and exhibits,” thus suggesting a holistic view of Dylan as creator.

Kevin Dettmar’s chapter, “Borrowing,” homes in on the by now well-trodden issue of plagiarism versus intertextuality. The subject has already been ably examined, from the intertextuality side, by scholars including Richard Thomas, and Dettmar, while mentioning the best-known cases (Junichi Saga, Henry Timrod, Ovid), does not analyze them in detail. He positions himself in favor of the intertextual, invoking literary theory (T.S. Eliot and Roland Barthes) and refuting the notion of plagiarism as being a “pretty blunt instrument” (205). Dettmar goes on to demonstrate the sophistication of the intertextual model with a concrete example — a careful reading of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and how it harks back, through the keyword “lonesome,” to Hank Williams.

The two remaining essays in this section return to the motif of religion, this time from a point of view more textual than musical. Elliott R. Wolfson, in his chapter “Judaism,” offers a detailed argument reading the Dylan oeuvre as infused with concepts from Jewish theology, while Andrew McCarron’s “Christianity: An Exegesis of Modern Times” offers a Christian reading of that album — coherent enough within its own terms, though containing what I would regard as an error in twice linking “Spirit on the Water” (230 and 233) to the Cain archetype: Dylan’s song has “I can’t go back to paradise no more/I killed a man back there,” but the biblical Cain, born after his parents’ fall, was never in paradise in the first place.

Part IV (“Political Contexts”) opens with “The Civil Rights Movement” by Will Kaufman. This is well-known territory, but the author offers some useful focuses, stressing that while African American musicians (Odetta, Leadbelly, Harry Belafonte) were major influences on Dylan’s early career, it was never his intention to speak directly for their community: he preferred to narrate as a witness. Kaufman also reminds us that the never fully resolved “lack of certainty over Dylan’s ‘commitment’ to the civil rights movement . . . is one of the defining features of the critical response to his work” (239). Michael J. Kraemer’s piece entitled “The Counterculture” is in fact mostly focused on John Wesley Harding, in which album he finds Dylan symbolically embodying a newly rural and traditionalist model for that social movement, in opposition to the extraverted psychedelia embraced by the Beatles in Sergeant Pepper. Putting Dylan’s 1968 opus under the microscope, he concludes it was “less a repudiation of the counterculture than an exploration of new directions in which it might move” (253). Kraemer also offers us tantalizing glimpses of how the archive’s notebooks for this period shed a fascinating light on the John Wesley Harding songs, their composition and their biblical sources. 

Ann Powers’ keynote address from Tulsa is entitled “Gender and Sexuality – Bob Dylan’s Body.” The well-known music critic breaks down Dylan’s projection of his body into four phases — in his early career, the “soft body”; from 1966, the “mod body”; from 1975, the “star body”; and from 1997, the “mortal body.” The author demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of Dylan’s career and a creative use of diverse biographical sources. A cross-career perspective is also offered by Lisa O’Neill-Sanders in her chapter “Justice.” Her analysis offers what scholars should find a useful catalogue of the recurring themes of criminality and criminal justice in the songs, from “The Death of Emmett Till” and “Seven Curses” through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to “Hurricane” and “Political World,” noting that these are motifs that “persist throughout his career” (278). The author concludes by hailing a song from recent times, “Early Roman Kings” from 2012, as embodying a universal inheritance of crime, in a world where — as Dylan said in 1975 – “justice is a game.”

Part V (“Reception and Legacy”) rounds off the book with four essays. Two focus on the more commercial aspects of Dylan’s career and his relationship with the world of marketing. Advertising professor Devon Powers, in “The Bob Dylan Brand,” examines the phenomenon of the mercantile Dylan, from Cadillac commercials to his own Heaven’s Door whiskey, arguing that “‘Bob Dylan’ is in many ways more symbol than person, in the past as a flashpoint for ‘generational sentiment and attachment” (293) and today as an emblem of longevity and a living legend. This chapter is complemented by David R. Shumway’s “Bob Dylan: Stardom and Fandom,” where it is argued that Dylan was central to the formation of the notion of the rock star as artist, although by the end of the 1960s he had become “a star defined by his changes rather than the consistency of his persona” (313). Shumway also stresses the “peculiar devotion” and the “cerebral” nature  (323) of Dylan’s fan base, with his mutability and unpredictability accepted as part of his stardom. 

In the chapter “The Nobel Prize: the Dramaturgy of Consecration,” James F. English takes us back to the world of literature and rehearses the by now familiar story of the vicissitudes of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel. This story has of course been told before, notably by Richard Thomas and Stephen Scobie, but it bears retelling as the author guides us through its various phases — the initial shock (for many) of the award, the multiple reactions for and against, Dylan’s famous delay in responding, Patti Smith’s performance at the ceremony and Dylan’s last-minute Nobel lecture. He also reminds us that this was hardly Dylan’s first major award, recalling the Pulitzer citation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Polar Prize and more, all of this being scarcely a precedent for imitating Jean-Paul Sartre and refusing the Nobel (as some suggested). English also takes a commendably original line in reading the entire Dylan/Nobel thread as a dramatic exercise, a form of living the world of literary prizes as spectacle. He concludes that “the 2016 prize lives on as a particularly vivid and well elaborated ‘storm of controversy’,” and as part of the Nobel’s inherent “dramaturgy” (312).

The closing chapter, “The Bob Dylan Archive,” is contributed by the archive’s director, Mark A. Davidson. The volume thus concludes by foregrounding the topic which has studded it as a leitmotif across its pages. Davidson outlines the BDA’s history, calling it “one of the most important collections ever constructed” (328), and stressing its “multifaceted and three-dimensional” nature (330). He stresses that the material it holds is not transparent — it calls for interpretation, like Bob Dylan himself, and is “more sphinx than oracle” (331). As examples of its richness, Davidson cites multiple drafts of Tarantula, the footage of Don’t Look Back, or 19 manuscript pages of lyrics for “Jokerman.” He concludes by hailing the BDA as a challenge for “exploring what archives mean in the 21st century” (334). Davidson’s case for the significance of the archive for researchers is irrefutable. I would, however, enter the caveat that not all Dylan scholars have the resources or the availability to make frequent visits to Tulsa, and it would be unfortunate if a two-tier hierarchy was created in the Dylan community according to whether or not one has consulted the archive — recalling also, as I write, the current environment of travel restrictions, as well as the fact that this is not an online archive. That said, it is clear that the creation of the archive has ushered in a whole new era in Dylan studies. 

The World of Bob Dylan may itself be seen as a publication geared to the existence of the archive, offering multiple pathways for future research around it. This is an excellent volume, and the different contributions are of a uniformly high standard. The range of aspects of Dylan studies covered is impressive. Some facets of Dylan’s world are absent or only touched on in passing, for instance his relationship with the cinema or his reception in the non-Anglophone world. However, all in all I consider this one of the best collective volumes on Bob Dylan that I have read in a long time, and indeed one of the most interesting publications of any kind on Dylan that have come my way in recent years. For anyone seeking an up-to-the-moment Dylan book that opens many a door with valuable information and new insights, this volume is indeed right on target. 

 

[1] As contributors to this collection, Dylan Review editors Raphael Falco and Lisa O’Neill Sanders recused themselves from any involvement in the procuring and editing of this review.

Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan 1970. 3 CDs, Sony Legacy, Columbia Records, 2021.

REVIEW BY David Thurmaier, University of Missouri, Kansas City

In Chronicles, Volume One, Bob Dylan casually describes the two albums he released in 1970 (Self Portrait and New Morning): “I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that too.” Dylan’s methods of working in the studio are legendary, quickly recording batches of songs, but these sessions were somewhat different. For one thing, many of the songs included on Self Portrait (released in June 1970) were covers, and not just from the expected traditional folk repertoire; instead, Dylan covered songs by his contemporaries like Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain,” in addition to oddities like Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” live cuts from his Isle of Wight performance with The Band the previous year, and several songs credited to “traditional.” In addition, the songs featured more unusual arrangements, some with choirs and strings, resulting in a markedly different sonic experience. Some of the songs were delivered in Dylan’s “crooning” Nashville Skyline voice, whereas others displayed his usual raspy vocal timbre (occasionally both appear in the same song). The result was an album largely panned by critics, though it experienced some chart success, climbing to #4 in the US and #1 in the UK. When New Morning was released in October 1970, and was comprised of all original songs, critics and the public exhaled strongly, pleased that Dylan was “back.” Not clear at the time of release was that some of the songs for both Self Portrait and New Morning were recorded during the same sessions, as Dylan alludes to in the earlier quote. And this new release of Bob Dylan 1970 (hereafter 1970) helps complete the genesis and development of these two recordings.

Ostensibly released as a copyright-extension set for Sony/Universal to protect the recordings from going into European public domain, 1970 follows in a series of similar Dylan albums with titles of years (e.g., 1963, 1964, etc.) containing numerous alternate takes presented in one collection. This three-CD set unearths 74 tracks of previously unreleased material presented chronologically from ten different sessions in 1970. If one were to combine the tracks from 1970 with those from the same sessions released on 2013’s Another Self Portrait (1969-71), a reasonably complete picture of Dylan’s studio activities during 1970 emerges. Whereas Another Self Portrait was curated to provide a more varied and flowing listening experience, containing music from 1969 and 1971 as well, 1970 presents its sessions in order, with multiple takes, jams, and some studio chatter so the listener can feel like a fly on the wall hearing the songs take shape. Though there are a few cuts from Self Portrait (e.g., “Alberta” and “Woogie Boogie”), most of the set consists of myriad diverse covers, the session with George Harrison, and many alternate versions of songs from New Morning

First, let’s get the “star power” aspect of the collection out of the way. One could reasonably assume the collection would attract fans of Dylan and the Beatles due to the cover billing of “special guest George Harrison.” As is well known, Dylan and Harrison were friends for many years, beginning when Dylan infamously introduced the Beatles to marijuana in 1964, followed by a Thanksgiving holiday Harrison spent at Dylan’s Woodstock house in 1968, Dylan’s rousing performance at Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh in 1971, and becoming bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys in the late 1980s/early 1990s. When Harrison joined Dylan in Columbia Studio B in New York on May 1, 1970, the Beatles had officially broken up and Harrison would not commence work on All Things Must Pass for another month (incidentally, starting the album with a Harrison-Dylan original, “I’d Have You Anytime”). Harrison happened to be in New York that day doing an interview with Howard Smith, and he joined Dylan in the studio. The thought of two friends and icons spending the day in the studio together sounds tantalizing. Rolling Stone even published a story in their May 28, 1970 issue called “Bob Dylan’s Secret Recording Session with George Harrison and Friends.” The story notes that the session was “kind of a nice, loose thing,” Dylan sang Beatles songs, and Harrison sang Dylan songs. Add Charlie Daniels on bass, producer Bob Johnston on keyboards, and session drummer Russ Kunkel and one should have the formula for a solid musical collaboration.

What did the quintet play that day? The selections can be divided into three categories: old Dylan originals (“Song To Woody,” “Mama, You Been On My Mind” [which Harrison would also record, later released on Early Takes, Vol. 1], “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “One Too Many Mornings,” “Gates Of Eden,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We’ve Never Met),” “I Threw It All Away,” “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “It Ain’t Me Babe”); seemingly random covers by other artists (“Yesterday,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “I Met Him On A Sunday,” “Cupid,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” “Matchbox,” “Your True Love,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky”); and some recent Dylan originals (“Telephone Wire,” “Fishing Blues,” “Sign On The Window,” and “If Not For You”). To say that most of this material is essential or even rewards repeated listening would be an overstatement. If one did not know Harrison was at this session, his contributions could easily be missed. He sings background vocals on nine of the songs, though his parts are understated and often barely audible. By contrast, Harrison’s guitar work occasionally shows some of his idiosyncratic touches, but sounds mostly like he is learning the songs (or asking others for the chords). On the one hand, hearing two music legends plow through a plenitude of Dylan and rock classics can be occasionally interesting and fun — “Song To Woody” is transformed into a rollicking waltz, “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is refashioned as a country march with some tasty guitar from Harrison, Dylan and Harrison have fun on a pair of Carl Perkins songs, and the duo does a fairly successful Everly Brothers imitation on “All I Have To Do Is Dream” — but on the other hand, many of the songs are marred by plodding bass by Daniels, as well as some truly desultory performances (e.g., “Yesterday”). But, despite its lack of varnish, it is nice to have an official release of this session for historical completion. 

If the Dylan/Harrison jamming is not really worth the price of admission, how does the rest of the material stack up on 1970? As someone who enjoys hearing the creative process of a song or album take shape, I would argue that there is some valuable material on these discs. For example, one can trace the development of several songs from New Morning that appear here in multiple takes. Let’s consider “If Not For You,” a song that Dylan recorded numerous times, and which Harrison later covered on All Things Must Pass. The session on May 1 with Harrison includes the version already released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, but 1970 also contains four additional takes done that same day: 

  • Take 1 features Dylan on piano, is fairly slow with lots of bass noodling and the musicians learning the parts, ending in a breakdown.
  • Take 2 has Dylan on acoustic guitar, is even slower, with busier bass and some awkwardness in the drums.
  • Take 3 improves substantially, with more parts added, including the harmonica. This take is similar in spirit to the version on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3
  • Another take is included (track 17), and the band reverts to the slow version, with lumbering drums and Dylan back on piano.

When the sessions reassemble on June 2, with David Bromberg, Ron Cornelius (guitar), Al Kooper (organ), Daniels, Kunkel, and unidentified background vocalists, the sound of the song becomes more countrified as heard in two takes. We hear a jaunty piano part, dobro, and a particularly raspy Dylan vocal familiar on New Morning, accentuated by a summer cold. The final versions of “If Not For You” appear on the August 12 session, where Dylan completely rerecords the song with Buzzy Feiten, Harvey Brooks, and Kooper in a different key, much faster, and similar to the final version on New Morning. Even though Dylan’s recording methods were often brisk, this set reveals his experimentation with “If Not For You” over several months in different styles. Beginning with the Harrison session on May 1, and ending with the August session, listeners can hear the song’s transformation to its final form on New Morning. For Harrison fans, this process is interesting because his own conception of the song on All Things Must Pass seems to originate in the May 1 session, and would later get the full Phil Spector treatment, whereas Dylan took the song in a completely different direction.

With this material in mind, is 1970 worth getting? It was not released on streaming services, so one has to buy the three-CD set (reasonably priced on Amazon at $16.79). One also gets liner notes by Michael Simmons that allude to the poor reviews of Self Portrait and give basic details and insights about the songs recorded on these sessions, highlighting how Dylan “recovers traditional folk, country, and blues, and then-current pop and country music.” Complete information for each session is also included, with the dates, titles, and personnel, as well as some photos from the era. For anyone interested in this mysterious and often-overlooked period in Dylan’s career, 1970 will be valuable as a reference and for its history. One may not listen often to the repetitive and ragged sessions, but this set is recommended for Dylan fans.