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

REVIEW BY Jonathan Hodgers, Trinity College, Dublin


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


[1] Jeff Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A about “The Philosophy of Modern Song”’, The Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022,

[2] Slate.

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

[4] Dylan, 41.

[5] Dylan, 154.

[6] Dylan, 153.

[7] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

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

[9] Dylan, 101.

[10] Dylan, 184.

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

[12] David Browne, ‘“Jesus, Bob”: How Some Musicians Feel About Being Dissed by Dylan in “Philosophy of Modern Song”’, Rolling Stone, 16 November 2022,

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

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

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

[16] Dylan, 198.

[17] Dylan, 165.

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

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

[20] Dylan, 275.

[21] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[22] Slate.

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

[24] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

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

[26] Dylan, 13.

[27] Dylan, 23.

[28] Dylan, 87.

[29] Dylan, 144, 334.

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

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

[32] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

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

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

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

[36] Dylan, 9.

[37] Dylan, 79.

[38] Dylan, 151.

[39] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

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

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

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

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

[44] Dylan, 59.

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

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

Works cited

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

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

California Press, 2002.

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

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

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

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

November 2022,


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

Criticism vol. 57, no. 2, 1999, pp. 193–204.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

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

Paramount, 2005. DVD.

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

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

Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022, interviewed-by-wall-street-journals-jeff-slate/.

Live from Bob Dylan’s Retrospectrum

REVIEW BY Rebecca Slaman


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

REVIEW BY Barry J. Faulk, Florida State University


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

REVIEW BY David R. Shumway, Carnegie Mellon University


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

REVIEW BY Karl Gustel Wärnberg, Leiden University


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Anthony Scaduto, Edited by Stephanie Trudeau. The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, Lovers Talking Early Bob Dylan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. xi+407 pp

REVIEW BY Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University Northwest


Anthony Scaduto (1932-2017) published his groundbreaking Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography on January 1, 1971. A seasoned journalist, having worked for the New York Post since the mid-1950s, he eagerly launched his research in the later sixties on the highly elusive, hardly candid Dylan. Scaduto had a nose for capturing detailed, intimate, revealing interviews, hopefully uncovering more of Dylan’s shadowy, often fictional, past. Many of those he interviewed provided highly personal information, although with often shaky memories. Therefore, before publication, he asked Dylan to read his manuscript and venture any comments. Dylan responded: “Like I say, I read the entire book and closed it! And frankly it didn’t make a dent. You see? I don’t care if the book is out or not” (394). Actually he was a bit more explicit than this, but not by much: “You see, my thing has to do with feelings, not politics, organized religion, or social activity. My thing is a feeling thing. Those other things will blow away” (402). That’s actually a pretty good way to understand Dylan’s sixty-plus decades of musicianship and creativity, but hardly one that has appealed to many, including Scaduto.


Stephanie Trudeau, Scaduto’s widow – they had met in 1972 – notes in the book’s Introduction that just “before he died, he discovered all his interview tapes in our basement” (xi): thirty-six hours of conversations with twenty-five of his friends, ending with that “vague kind of guy,” as Dylan described himself (402). “Why did Tony open a dusty box in our basement,” she wonders. “He found a treasure . . . . This discovery came toward the end of his life, and when he died the task of completing his project . . . was left to me” (407). When the tapes are finally open to others, they will continue Scaduto’s explorations into Dylan’s life and artistic creations, although in the 1973 and 2008 editions of his biography he added some additional information. Of course, so much more is now known and interpreted in the dozens of Dylan biographies as well as the mountain of more focused studies. But can there ever be enough? Certainly not, particularly with access to the Bob Dylan Archive, the expanding trove of collections from numerous private collectors, and the May 2022 opening of the Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


While much of what Scaduto learned from his interviews might now seem common knowledge, it was fresh and revealing in the late 1960s. The book proceeds in rough chronological fashion, beginning with Echo Helstrom, Dylan’s high school girlfriend, then her mother Martha, although unfortunately few of the interviews are dated. Let us assume that the chapters are not in the order of the interviews, but we do not know. There are no interviews with family members (not even a mention of his younger brother David), nor with his first wife Sara. For Echo, who spent much time at the Dylan house, Bob remained somewhat of a mystery, while her mother recalled he was “very pleasant – we thought so anyway . . . . [H]e wasn’t loud at all, or insulting, like some kids are” (35-36). Next are a couple of Dylan’s friends in Minneapolis, where he briefly lived, including the blues performer Spider John Koerner (later a member of the popular trio Koerner, Ray, and Glover).


When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in early 1961, he quickly became enmeshed in the local folk scene. Naturally, Scaduto’s interviews focused on a selection of his various friends, contacts, and assorted others, beginning with Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde’s Folk City, one of the local clubs that actually paid the performers (Dylan had started at the basket houses, where the only pay came from contributions from the audience). Certainly not shy, he talked Porco into letting him perform: “For me it was nothing impressive really, but look, it was good enough that he could come back” (840). And come back he did, until Robert Shelton gave him a rave review in the New York Times in September 1961, which sparked his career. There is much on Gerde’s early history in Robbie Woliver, Bringing It All Back Home (1986), and considerably more on the broader music scene in Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (2015) (for Dylan 255-289). Naturally Dylan soon met Dave Van Ronk, one of the Village’s most influential, and outspoken, musicians. At first he “was pretty much the same as everybody else in the scene,” Van Ronk recalled. “In a month or two I discovered he was a pathological liar. . . . We accepted him not because of the things he said he had done but because we respected him as a performer” (94). Van Ronk has a great deal to say about their complex relationship in his colorful, highly informative autobiography (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (2005).


While Van Ronk, despite his leftwing politics, was not active in the local topical song movement, Dylan quickly connected with Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen, who began distributing their mimeographed magazine Broadside. Initially subtitled “A handful of songs about our times,” the first issue came out in February 1962. While various performers gathered at Sis and Gordon’s cramped apartment on West 103 St., Scaduto’s interviews barely mention Broadside. This is an odd oversight, particularly since Dylan’s “`Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” appeared in the inaugural issue, with other songs to follow. “Bob Dylan came to these monthly meetings for well over a year. Gil Turner, emcee at Gerde’s Folk City, brought him to the first one,” Sis and Gordon recalled in Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography (1999). “Dylan was quite shy” (276). They were happy to nurture the newcomer, later feeling that “the success of these early Dylan songs was a main source of inspiration for the whole topical song movement” (295). “Blowing in the Wind” appeared in Broadside in May 1962. Perhaps Scaduto had little interest in topical songs, since he did not interview Sis or Gordon, although by the time of their interview, Dylan had moved away from the protest genre.


Phil Ochs joined the Broadside songsters, long remaining close to Sis and Gordon while developing a fraught relationship with Dylan. “I think he basically was a very human person and wanted to keep human relationships going and I think he felt that slipping away because of his fame,” he explained to Scaduto, but these remarks came some time after their split (138). While Ochs had become a prolific songwriter with a loyal following, he was no match for Dylan’s creative powers and international renown. Besides, Dylan had no room for a continuing friendship with Ochs, with their clashing personalities. The older Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had traveled with Woody Guthrie and helped spread his songs in the 1950s, had a harder time than Ochs appreciating Dylan, particularly as a rival. “I didn’t imagine that somebody would come along like Bob Dylan and take Woody’s style and write stuff about today,” he explained to Scaduto (152). He added, “I think he’s a little bit too paranoid about me. But he’s a very paranoid kid, and I understand that, and I know it, because I’ve seen him be that way all along. I thought, you know, he’s got it, it’s in the bag” (159). Elliott did not mention his Jewish background, but he and Dylan were often compared because of their similar identity transformations. (While Ochs and many other folk performers were Jewish, few others appeared to mask their backgrounds like Dylan and Elliott.)


Among Dylan’s early Village friendships, perhaps none was more important or well known than with Suze Rotolo, particularly since their photo appeared on the cover of his influential second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. She was not eager to talk to Scaduto, so her responses were guarded and brief: “A lot of times I just wanted out, period. For no other reason that it was, this isn’t working. It was too, we weren’t getting on. . . . I wanted out” (179). When asked if she was being difficult, she responded: “No, I get this feeling that you’re wanting this to fall into a line of what you already have. If it doesn’t, then you turn it” (183). She would later publish A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008), where she is much more forthcoming (and her album cover photo with Dylan is used for her book jacket): “We discovered we had much in common, including a mutual need for a comfortable place away from the chaos of life. We found in each other a kind of safe haven, yet trouble between us slowly grew out of his facility for not telling the truth” (95). Her older sister, Carla, was more open with Scaduto, probably because she had avoided the public glare. When asked about Bob’s personality she responded: “But when he was first in the city, he was a very sweet kid. Just not too articulate. But I think that’s probably why he did hang on to Suze, for that sweetness.” Then he changed. “He decided he would pick out your weakness and then suddenly grab it and use it on you” (188). Scaduto seemed more interested in Dylan’s personal transformations – certainly remarkable – than in his creative developments.


Dylan had first met Carolyn Hester and her husband Richard Fariña at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1961. He was soon in Columbia Studios, backing Hester on harmonica for her next album. She introduced Dylan around, and would then divorce Fariña, who next married Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister. This developing folk world, with Dylan increasingly at the center, has been well captured in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina (2001). Perhaps Dylan was interested in Hester after her divorce, but as she admitted to Scaduto: “Yeah, I was, you know, four years older, and I did feel that I shouldn’t get involved with someone that – I felt like his sister” (252). Another key member of the inner circle was the musician and artist Eric von Schmidt, who discussed with Scaduto Dylan’s controversial appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival: “We’re getting to the crux of the von Schmidt theory, that the whole thing was a mistake, that people were not putting Bobby down for playing electric. It was that we couldn’t hear him. The [sound] balance was fucked up” (276). It would take a talented musician such as von Schmidt to candidly discuss Dylan’s developing creative abilities. The controversy over the audience’s reaction still continues, while von Schmidt’s version has been generally upheld, although many at that time could not accept an electrified Dylan. The best overview is presented in Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties (2015).


In 1957, Israel “Izzy” Young opened the Folklore Center, filled with instruments, records, magazines, and a tiny performance space, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Two years later he launched his Sing Out! column “Frets and Fails,” full of news and especially gossip about the local as well as national folk scene. Dylan quickly headed to Izzy’s when arriving in the city, and the two became longtime friends. In Chronicles (2004), Dylan recalls: “The place was a crossroads junction for all folk activity you could name and you might at any time see real hard-line folksingers in there” (19). In early 1962 Dylan expressed his feelings in “Talking Folklore Center,” which he never recorded; however, the proud Young quickly printed and circulated the lyrics. Scaduto’s lengthy interview with Izzy represents his complex relationship with Dylan. “I had a store on MacDougal Street and he came into the store in ’61. And he almost immediately took over,” Izzy began; “Well, he would come in with songs every day, singing new songs. And singing the old songs then. . . . [E]verybody accepted him completely, especially myself, as something that fell out of the sky” (306). Izzy was so charmed that he organized Dylan’s first concert appearance, at the small mid-town Carnegie Chapter Hall, on November 4, 1961, rather than his usual performances in a Village coffee house or folk club. The small turnout discouraged neither Dylan nor Izzy; a few months later he first mentioned Dylan in his Sing Out! column. All of his prolific writings, including numerous Dylan references, appear in Scott Barrett, ed., The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young (2013). Particularly fascinating is his daughter Philomène Grandin’s Don’t Forget Me: A Gripping Farewell to a Remarkable Father (2022), in which she recalls attending the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, missing Dylan but accompanied by her ailing father. Young moved to Stockholm in 1973 and they always kept in contact. Indeed, for many, Young appeared to represent Dylan in Europe.


Joan Baez shared with Scaduto now legendary stories of her fraught relationship with Dylan. Yet she concluded: “I think it’s hard not to love somebody like Bobby. I’m really drawn to people who are exceptional” (377).


Scaduto published the first in a tidal wave of serious Dylan studies. We are now able to study his raw research, always useful with the opening of the Archive and now the Bob Dylan Center and as Dylan celebrates his many decades as a creative genius and international celebrity. What more can we ask? As for the author, he would go on to write biographies of Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy. But none would have the influence of his Bob Dylan!

Dylan at 80: It Used to Go like That, and Now It Goes like This. Edited by Gary K. Browning and Constantine Sandis. Exeter, U.K.: Imprint Academic Ltd, 2021. x + 176 pp.

REVIEW BY Anne-Marie Mai, University of Southern Denmark


As a researcher in Bob Dylan’s art and poetry, I have found myself on my own never-ending tour. Public interest in learning more about Bob Dylan is growing among both young and old, and audiences eagerly note titles of new books and research articles whenever I give lectures on Bob Dylan at libraries, university extension courses or general education societies. I often end my lectures by noting that posterity will speak of us as an audience that was there when Dylan was alive. Just as we today talk about someone who saw and heard Amadeus Mozart play live and followed the making of his opus, our descendants will talk about us as people who were actually present and experienced Dylan’s giant opus coming into being. We might be envied because we witness how Dylan has generously shared his art, given numerous concerts, and engaged in film, radio, and visual arts. It can actually be quite demanding to follow Dylan’s eighty-year pace.


In 2020, when the world was first suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, Dylan released his album Rough and Rowdy Ways. In the summer of 2021 he appeared in a new online show, Shadow Kingdom, where he, along with a group of young musicians, played some of his early songs in masterful new interpretations. By the end of 2021, Dylan was again on tour and in 2022 announced a new book release, The Philosophy of Modern Song. He has not reduced his productivity now that he has gotten older, but thrillingly, he has increased it.


The new release, Dylan at 80, edited by Professor Gary Browning and Professor Constantine Sandis, is as thrilling as the artist himself. The publication consists of thirty-five short essays on a variety of intriguing and surprising topics: everything from Dylan’s Stratocaster, to Dylan’s ghosts, to the love of Dylan, become the subject of fine essayistic considerations. The publication dares to confront the reader with scores of diverse topics, each interesting object giving way to the next. The editors have mixed research with personal recollections and testimonies of people who have lived a long life with Dylan’s art. It is characteristic that the publication does not repeat old truths about Dylan but sees its topics from new perspectives.


It may seem hard to say anything new about well-known Dylan topics – like the famous July 25, 1965, electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival – but there is more to reveal. Professor Garry L. Hagberg’s fine analysis of Dylan’s playing on his new Stratocaster is put into relief by Jimi Hendrix’s use of the Stratocaster on “All Along the Watchtower,” where Hendrix also uses the acoustic guitar as the foundation that gets the Stratocaster to sing. No wonder Dylan himself declared: “It’s Jimi’s piece, I just wrote it.” Hagberg adds to the well-known drama of Dylan’s performance at Newport that it opened the history of the vigor of his songs: “When Dylan walked onstage with that Stratocaster, he (knowingly or otherwise) created a line of implication concerning the fecundity of his songs; what they could call for and what they could mean” (55).


Dylan at 80 also includes famous Dylan researcher Michael Gray’s analysis of the endings of Dylan’s songs. Gray notes how the young Dylan to some extent follows the rules of folk music for how a musician should end a song on an album, not by fading out the music, but by coming to an end and making it clear that the song is finished. According to Michael Gray, Dylan sticks to the rule of no fade-outs when he sings the traditional songs on his first album, Bob Dylan (1961), but when he brings in his own song, “Talkin’ New York,” he uses a fade-out. In his live performances he starts using a significant harp break before the last verse of the song as he did in the recorded version of “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” (1964) and he also begins to fade out more tracks on his albums (229). Or he challenges the idea of the absolute end of something, importing his characteristic contradictions and oxymorons into the endings of his songs as in “To Ramona” (1964), the ending of which includes the contradiction: “everything passes, everything changes” (233).


Among the more personal recollections of and reflections on Dylan, readers can delight in Stephen Sedley’s tale of a brief encounter with Dylan at a London club in 1962, in the days of Cuban Missile Crisis, when Dylan was recognized as a new American star and asked to play. Dylan borrowed Stephen Sedley’s guitar and fell into the ongoing session. The beauty of Sedley’s account is that he confesses his memory may have added something and subtracted something else; but the memory is his, as are the youthfully old-fashioned reviews he writes about Dylan’s London concerts in 1964 and 1965. A nice photo of the guitar that Dylan borrowed and quotations from Sedley’s old reviews are included (18-19, 20).


Among the personal accounts, we also notice the songwriter and musician Robyn Hitchcock, who tells of how, as a young man, he experienced Dylan’s songs and began to look at him as an older brother: “He must have fulfilled that role for millions by now” (148). Songwriter and singer Emma Swift talks about how she got hooked on Dylan during the coronavirus pandemic, when Dylan released “Murder Most Foul” with a special greeting to his fans and followers: “stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you” (151). Emma Swift finds that Dylan’s fans and followers come together in online communities, help one another, and keep each other’s spirits up during this difficult time, and that Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways gives the group new material to enjoy, analyze, and share with each other. And while Hitchcock calls Dylan an older brother, Swift wants to expand the family relationship: “Bob Dylan is not merely the world’s finest songwriter – he is the charming, elusive, sage, handsome, poetic and life-affirming brother, father, uncle and grandfather we never had” (152).


All contributions in this anthology are worth reading, and they cover everything from Dylan’s first songs and lyrics to his very latest works. I’m particularly fond of Emma-Rose Sear’s excellent reading of Dylan’s poem, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” in which she shows how Dylan understands Guthrie as a kind ghost, neither living nor dead, who haunts his own work and thus never quite disappears from his universe. Guthrie is placed in a special presence, an “out of time” that Dylan returns to in other songs. The essay provides the reader new avenues to pursue the ghostly themes of Dylan’s universe, themes that seem to increase as Dylan continues to create, such as the ghostly atmosphere in Shadow Kingdom.


It’s also inspiring to follow Laura Tenschert’s article on the song, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” from Rough and Rowdy Ways. Tenschert explains how Dylan’s song can be seen in relation to his Nobel lecture, as well as the song “Mother of Muses,” also from Rough and Rowdy Ways. The Nobel lecture ends with Homer’s plea to the Muse: “Oh Muse, sing in me,” while the song “Mother of Muses” asks the mother of muses, Mnemosyne, to bestow on the singer the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope: “why not give her to me?” Dylan thus surrounds himself with several muses that he hopes will come to him. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” can be seen as a love song about devotion, but it also has a deeper layer where the singer reflects on his art and realizes that it is not a matter of his winning the Muse and making her his own; rather, he must devote himself to her. Tenschert provides a fine analysis of Dylan’s use of Jacques Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” as musical and textual inspiration in the song. Tenschert asks, is it really necessary for Dylan to assure himself, and the rest of us, that he has indulged in art? It is of course good that he does, because beautiful songs come out of his statements, but perhaps the relationship with art must constantly be reformulated and restored. Although Dylan has long since been able to celebrate his golden wedding anniversary with poetry, it has never been a safe marriage, but a dramatic love affair that must be constantly renewed.


There are several very readable essays in this collection about Dylan’s latest songs, his voice, and his stage performance. There is also a very careful linguistic corpus analysis of Dylan’s word choices in the 20th and 21st centuries. The linguist and translator Jean-Charles Khalifa is hesitant to draw big conclusions; however, he does note that the verb “change,” which was very prominent in Dylan’s songs from the 20th century, has almost disappeared in the 21st century (95).


Several of the writers are interested in comparing Dylan to other artists. Dylan himself has not shied away from comparing himself to Shakespeare, who is perhaps one of his most important inspirations. When Dylan first gave a concert in Denmark in 1966, he rushed to Kronborg to see Hamlet’s castle and climb onto the bastion where Hamlet’s father’s ghost first appeared.


Professor Katharine A. Craik, a Shakespeare specialist and poet, discusses Dylan’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, where he mentions Shakespeare, and she notes that Dylan’s use of Shakespeare’s dramatic works is often pointed out. But there’s also reason to look at parallels between Shakespeare’s sonnets and Dylan’s songs. With the sonnets Craik hears a “melody” (195) and, like Dylan’s songs, the sonnets are about existential conditions: youth, age, memory, and death. Craik compares Shakespeare’s sonnet No. 66 from 1609 to Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It is her point of view that the two texts are similar: they represent “a wake-up call, through repeated acts of witnessing, to a world which is terribly depleted by untruthfulness, prejudice, carelessness, cruelty and neglect” (196). The essay is a good introduction to the study of poetry across the years and shapes itself as a newly enriched approach to literary history. Craik elaborates on Dylan’s point that he has never thought about whether what he is doing is literature by highlighting that what Dylan and Shakespeare share is the awareness of the risk and vulnerability inherent to artistic work.


In her essay, Fleur Jongepier, who works in ethics, compares Bob Dylan and Iris Murdoch’s notions and practices in relation to “unselfing,” a process in which one experiences through self-expression that there is something else in the world that is real apart from oneself. It is practicing “unselfing through selfing,” which is an important point of Murdoch’s philosophy, that can be found in Dylan as he expresses himself through characters of his songs like Jimmy Reed, Johnny in the Basement, or Franky Lee, and arrives at a spiritual unselfing comparable to a Buddhist experience (205). It’s an intriguing thought that sheds new light on Dylan’s steady moving between characters and roles as thematized in Todd Haynes’ film, I’m Not There (2007) (206).


Another artist Dylan is compared to is Pablo Picasso. The art historian Ray Foulk, who specializes in modern art, discusses the differences in Dylan’s and Picasso’s significance and breakthroughs. Picasso contributed to a renewal of the realm of art with one stroke – cubism – while Dylan’s revolutionary impact had to do with stages: first he renewed folk music and then he went electric. But both became seminal. Foulk also discusses the two artists’ relationship with God and their inclusion in other arts: film, acting, and photography. The interest in the two artists illuminates the transformative power of their work.


Natalie Ferris takes a closer look at Dylan’s visual art, especially his major works in iron. She emphasizes that iron as a material has always interested Dylan and characterizes some of his gates created out of industrial iron waste. She points out the gates are tributes to craftsmanship, but that they also mark a transition from a modern industrial culture to a more uncertain future. This is neither modernism or postmodernism – rather, the artwork marks transitions while also referring to a non-place, standing both inside and outside without being fully either. Ferris considers why Dylan has sold a very large iron portal to a casino in Washington, D.C., observing the portal marks the transition from a universe governed by one logic to a universe with a different logic. The portal protrudes from the smooth marble surface and the delicate colors at the casino’s entrance.


The editors for this project, Dylan at 80, have engaged innovative writers who demonstrate that Dylan’s oeuvre is a growing field of research. Dylan’s unflagging productivity constantly puts new material on the table, and it is seized upon by many kinds of writers and Dylanologists. There are many great new ideas in this anthology that readers will want to hear much more about, and the mix of memoirs with analytical articles works well. It is promising that so many knowledgeable and committed people seek out Dylan’s work, draw comparisons to other artwork and poetry, and show their enthusiasm. I would have liked to have heard more about Dylan as a performer and about his involvement in films. It would also be interesting to look at how the different arts he engages in work together. Is there an interaction between, say, painting and songwriting, or are these isolated endeavors? Dylan’s involvement in advertising, too, could merit closer analysis. All the same, Dylan at 80 is a rewarding anthology that I’ll come back to and work on, a formidable inspiration for anyone preoccupied with Dylan, and an obligatory work on the list of books I would recommend on my own personal never-ending lecture tour.

Graley Herren. Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. London, U.K.: Anthem Press, 2021. x + 176 pp.

REVIEW BY D. Quentin Miller, Suffolk University


I’m writing this review from Valencia, Spain, visiting my son who moved here a few months ago. Yesterday we were making our way to the stunning cathedral, which houses (believe it or not) the Holy Grail. Poking around the narrow alleyways of the old city, my wife eyed some of the tourist shops while my son was scouting out paella restaurants. I spotted a cool-looking sign down a side street: “Devil Records.” I pulled on their coats. “I’m absolutely hitting this record store,” I declared. They exchanged a knowing eye roll, clearly deciding to sit it out. Let the old man have his nostalgic fun. I stepped in and did what I’ve been doing since I was about seven years old, flipping through bins, scrutinizing the artfully designed covers, and deciding what I could afford.


I couldn’t resist this particular temptation – the devil delaying my pilgrimage to the Holy Grail – and I imagine most readers of this journal are fully with me. We know the magic of albums, but we also realize that they signify something to you and me that they don’t signify to others. Take my 22-year-old son. This morning we took a minute to share what we were working on. He tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow. “You’re reviewing a whole book about one record?” Shrug, bashful smile. Dylan Review reader, you understand, right? We’re on the same page and in the same groove. But the premise behind Grayley Herren’s Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind bears a little scrutiny, even between us superfans and critics.


For what is an album in the age of streaming? It’s become more a fuzzy concept than a tangible thing. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you most definitely think of albums as events as well as solid objects, and you regard the experience of listening (and relistening) to them as something not easily recreated on Spotify. We look back at the time when an album release meant an occasion. As we assess and analyze our most important musical artists from the vinyl age, an album marks a specific moment in their evolution. An album isn’t an accident. It’s selected and arranged. It arrives when the artist, musicians, producers, and label are satisfied that it’s ready for release, the endpoint of a period of creative inspiration and hard labor. Maybe most pointedly, it marks a moment of growth, departure, or change in the trajectories of most true artists who aren’t content to repeat their early formulas. Dylan is, of course, one such artist. One might find connections between his debut album, Desire, and Rough and Rowdy Ways, but anyone reading this review would never have to think twice about which one opened with “Hurricane.”


Even the title tells us that Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is a niche book. That’s not a judgment, just a statement of fact as we consider audience. This one’s for experts or advanced Dylanphiles, and definitely for academics, specifically those who peer at Dylan’s work through literary lenses. It’s unlikely that any budding Dylan scholar would start with this book, just as it’s unlikely that nascent Dylan fans would start with Time Out of Mind. It’s a testimony to the ever-growing depth and breadth of Dylan studies that a book like this one can be written, published, and read at a time when the relevance of _______ (fill in the blank here: Dylan / literature / literary-minded popular music / the humanities / true art) is menaced by ______ (fill in the blank again: social media / the Internet / late capitalism / pandemic ennui). Unbothered, Herren advances a smart, informed, clearly written, old-school argument about an album. And not the oft-celebrated Freewheelin’, Blonde on Blonde, or Blood on the Tracks, mind you, but one that might be lifted out of the bin at Devil Records and held up as an unlikely holy grail. Skeptics might not want to bother with this study if they’re of the camp, detailed by Herren in the introduction, that regards Time Out of Mind as a belabored late career effort that could never live up to the early career gems. In other words, the study is an exercise in risk-taking and deep thinking. What could be more Dylan than that?


It’s clear that Herren is a fan and even a champion of Time Out of Mind. (He acronymizes the album title to TOOM and gets a lot of mileage out of the “tomb” pun: I’m not going to do the same thing here). In an admirably clear-eyed summary of the album’s reception, he acknowledges that Dylan’s achievements can sometimes be overshadowed by critical disagreements about them. He makes his project clear: “The present book seeks to refocus attention where it belongs – on Dylan’s ambitious, inventive, provocative and dialogical art in Time Out of Mind – rather than on peripheral skirmishes” (12). If the reader is wondering, “Why this album?” Herren eventually lays that out, too. His beef is with the well-established trend to celebrate Dylan’s early work of the 60s and 70s while dismissing or diminishing the later work; he writes “This characterization is utterly false, as anyone who has paid any attention to his work over the past quarter-century would know. Dylan has produced some of the most contemplative, complex, challenging and vital work of his career since 1997, a late renaissance initiated by Time Out of Mind” (23). He clearly views the album as a watershed event in Dylan’s career, not only as a complex and worthy text but as the very origin (note the word “initiated”) of his creative rebirth. I concur, and I’m happy to see it getting attention.


So we pretty much agree on what an album is, yes? A text, in this context? Well…Herren takes liberties with the finished product that is Time Out of Mind, adding a few bonus tracks to his analysis, an act which he calls “expanding the domain” of the album (22). As he justifies this decision, he quotes Paul Williams who describes Blood on the Tracks as a “meta-work” and applies the same logic to this album, including not only the eleven songs included on Time Out of Mind but also three that were outtakes that appeared on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 and, perhaps a little less solidly, “Mississippi” which was included on the next album, “Love and Theft”. Um, we-elll, yeah, but…I reiterate my initial question: what’s an album? I really admire the focus of a study like this one, but this move unsettles me a little because it compromises the understood boundaries of the argument. If a critic borrows songs that weren’t on this album (and that ended up on another album), there’s the sense that limiting the analysis to a titled album is somewhat arbitrary. One can imagine a version of Herren’s book that does not seek to analyze every track on Time Out of Mind (plus four) as this one does, but rather that selects a number of tracks from this period and seeks coherence that way. Call it “Dylan’s Early Late-Career Renaissance” or “Dylan’s Work of the Late 1990s.” I know it’s not as punchy, but it’s more accurate.


The troublesome thing about a “meta-work” is that it’s defined by the critic rather than the artist or the reader/listener. Herren argues that “Mississippi” “fits effectively in the context of “Love and Theft” and provides a crucial link connecting the two albums. However, “Mississippi” lies even closer to the heart of Time Out of Mind, and no account of this meta-work would be complete without taking it into consideration” (21-22). But just pages before he includes the following quotation from Hibbing’s favorite son: “This record is not a blueprint. This is it. This is the way these songs should go, every single last one. This record went through different evolutions. What you hear comes through that whole maze, that labyrinth of fire that it takes to perfect the arrangement and the structure” (8). Even though Herren includes another quotation from a later interview in which Dylan is less convinced about the coherence of the record, even that quotation asserts that Time Out of Mind “held together as a collection of songs” (9). It’s pretty clear to me what Dylan might say about the move to add four more tracks that weren’t on it and call it a meta-work. In his recent study Listening to Bob Dylan, in a chapter titled “Arranging an Album,” Larry Starr shares my skepticism; he writes that Time Out of Mind “serves perfectly to illuminate the advantages of listening to a Bob Dylan album as a complete, purposeful program of individual songs.”[1]


Okay, enough about albums (for now). The approach is equally important. In sum, Herren’s argument as laid out in the introduction is smart, well-informed, well-argued, and intriguing. He relies heavily on the number three to structure it, framing his introduction with the statement “Bob Dylan creates in threes” (1, 20). He substantiates this claim with choice quotations from Dylan as well as shrewd observations about patterns in his creative arc. He mirrors this creative principle in his analysis, dividing the Time Out of Mind meta-work into three categories and presenting evidence in triads, such as quotations from three interviews, or arguing that the pattern indicated by Dylan in his Nobel acceptance speech triangulates himself, Leadbelly, and Buddy Holly in terms reminiscent of the holy trinity. I’ll get to each of the three categories in a minute, but there are a few other noteworthy dimensions of the introductory framework that give it heft. One is a deft movement between key biographical details, the Dylan myth (often perpetuated or mischievously altered by the puckish Robert Zimmerman himself), critical pronouncements, audience reception, and finally an intellectual framework that includes psychology, religion, and experimental modern literature (notably the work of James Joyce).


This may sound like a rich cup of coffee, but it’s mellowed by Herren’s prose style, which is clear, accessible, and enthusiastic, even while advancing sophisticated ideas about transfiguration and metempsychosis. We dive pretty deep here, even in the introduction, but Herren doesn’t let go of our hand and force us to swim on our own. I found particularly intriguing the notion of dreams (gleaned in the title) as a valid inroad into Dylan’s art in general and this album (I’ll go back to calling it that) in particular. Herren counts sixty-five Dylan tracks over the course of his career that “contain the root-word ‘dream’” and traces a career-long pattern that constitutes “an aesthetic of transformational art modeled after dreams” (17, 18). This dimension of the argument had me bobbing my head, eager for more. I’ve often focused on dream imagery when teaching some early tracks like “Gates of Eden,” but have never considered the topic with Herren’s level of breadth or sophistication. He uses the lyrics from “Series of Dreams,” an outtake from Oh, Mercy (better add it to the meta-work), to cue up the analysis to follow: “Time Out of Mind represents a series of dreams. The album is Dylan’s most concerted experiment with enlisting dreams in the service of art. He uses dreams for content, drawing from a vast rag and bone shop of intertextual references stored in the unconscious” (19). Whose unconscious? Not Dylan’s, or not exactly. Herren views the dreamer as a “protagonist” who reproduces many of the tropes recognizable throughout Dylan’s career, but declares that the protagonist “is personal, if not strictly autobiographical” and concludes, “Time Out of Mind sometimes appears as a portrait of failure – the dreamer’s failure – but the portrait itself, as painted by Dylan, is a major artistic success” (19). This summary quotation is a good example of the author’s authority, grace, and excitement about the subject at hand. I imagine most readers who had understood the references and followed the argument through the introduction would be eager, as I was, to plunge into the close readings at this point.


So here we go. The first category Herren addresses is murder ballads, in the close company of a type of character Dylan has engaged with over his career: “lawbreakers, rebels, and desperadoes” (26). The argument rearranges most of the tracks on the album to suggest that the narrator, motivated by his desire to hunt down and kill his lost love, becomes a fugitive, is arrested, imprisoned, and executed with a dying wish to be redeemed or to receive mercy in this world or the next, knowing that it will be unfulfilled. The key, Herren reminds us, to accepting this interpretation is to remember that Dylan’s speaker is not a literal killer, but a dreamer. His disturbing nocturnal visions are the substance of the narrative. Herren also reminds us that Dylan and the dreamer-protagonist of the album are not the same person, but they “do have one important thing in common: they both know a hell of a lot of folk and blues songs” (27). Herren provides a quick and effective background on the murder ballad genre and Dylan’s previous forays into it, acknowledging that the genre can descend into blatant misogyny and using that observation to address Dylan’s uneven record on depictions of women. He keeps the focus on dreaming, though, as an aesthetic motif rather than as an occasion for psychoanalysis. He’s keen to remind us of the crucial distinction between artist and protagonist: “Dylan is a master swimmer gliding through the sea of madness in which his dreamer drowns” (37). This analysis attaches itself to one of the outtakes, “Dreaming of You,” which, Herren suggests, perfectly captures the crux of his argument, though it is “inexplicably” left off the album (37). He springboards to “Make You Feel My Love” at that moment, reframing a song that many of Dylan’s champions love to hate for its sweet, cliched, anodyne triteness. Hardly, says Herren. Within the context of the murder ballad analysis, this song is menacing and creepy. Placed between his analyses of the more overtly sinister tracks “Love Sick,” “Can’t Wait,” and “‘Til I Fell In Love With You,” the argument sticks. Herren is a literary scholar, so the lyrics are tantamount to his analysis, but he does manage to address musical concerns, too, including the arrangements, the Psycho-like sounds of the organ (“four staccato stabs”) at the opening of “Love Sick,” and the distinct rasp of Dylan’s voice (“estranged and alien”) (34).


As the murder ballad chapter approached its conclusion, the centrifugal force of the argument left me feeling a little dizzy, like someone added a healthy pour of tequila into the rich cup of coffee that is the argument. I’m not complaining – I like both espresso and hard liquor – but here I felt the need for more patience. Herren’s close readings of some of the more challenging and enduring tracks on Time Out of Mind – “Standing in the Doorway,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Trying to Get to Heaven,” and “Highlands” – are perceptive and convincing, and he uses them to good effect to conclude the argument about the murder ballad tradition, but they’re surrounded with a whirlwind of allusions to everything from fairy tales to canonical literature to Dylan’s own songs to such a degree that I wanted the author to slow down a bit and sink even deeper into the lyrics he’s so good at analyzing. The book is on the short side for an academic study, so I don’t think anything would have to be cut to make room.


The next chapter covers Herren’s second category, religious allegory. The frame here involves a good bit of effort defining the term, especially since Dylan once explicitly claimed that Time Out of Mind did not employ allegory. “I have given that up,” our hero declared in an interview with Edna Gunderson (54). Like hell you have, Herren rejoins. I’m persuaded by Herren’s inclination to “trust the tale” rather than the teller here because he works so hard and so carefully to define allegory, whereas Dylan in the interview writes it off as mere “philosophical dogma” (57, 54). Plus, as we know, it’s dangerous business to take Dylan’s interviews at face value. Herren weaves a web connecting a literary tradition from the medieval type of soul-struggle called “psychomachia” to Othello to Moby-Dick in order to argue for this album’s place in that tradition.


Psychomachia is one of (you guessed it) three forms of allegory Herren identifies in Dylan’s work, the other two being personification and intertextual identification with an allegorical figure. The first and third categories are the most prevalent on Time Out of Mind, and Herren begins the chapter with a somewhat lengthy establishment of Dylan’s allegorizing early in his career through readings of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and “Where Are You Tonight” among others. It takes ten pages to get to Time Out of Mind, or rather to one of the outtakes, “Red River Shore,” which is the author’s entry point. He lingers on this “undeniably stellar song” for quite some time – about seven pages, with plenty of connections to earlier and later songs peppered in – which is the type of sustained analysis I was craving at the end of the preceding chapter (62). Moses is the key figure of intertextual identification here: Herren concludes his analysis by calling it “Dylan’s Mosaic mosaic” (69). (Clever!) This reading sets the table for a diverse set of inquiries into the album’s other allegorical features, which are more free-ranging and combinatory than the way the murder ballad reading worked in the previous chapter (i.e. as a continuous narrative, told out of order). The spiritual pilgrimage is one dimension, but without the customary redemption at the end. The biblical figures Herren initially showcases here are Job and his tormenter, Satan, who provide ways to reframe some of the tracks he contextualized with the murder ballad tradition earlier. The separate contexts are opportunities to go deeper into the analysis, and indeed, Herren refers to them as “levels” (74, 78). The overall argument takes on breadth as well as depth as Herren goes into some tracks that did not get as much play in chapter two such as “Cold Irons Bound.”


But the depth is more striking, especially as Herren recasts two central, weighty songs from Time Out of Mind – “Not Dark Yet” and “Standing in the Doorway” – as allegories that involve Judas and Jesus, especially Jesus as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. Always keeping the context of dreams in sight, Herren’s argument is especially rich here as he stays close to the texts at hand and provides a way of reading that is both an alternative to his earlier readings and complementary to them. Certainly, Dylan’s best songs can and should benefit from approaches from multiple contexts. A murderer about to be executed and Jesus perishing on the cross are clearly two different types, but both stare down the same spiritual dilemma. The chapter concludes by revisiting one of the long tracks considered in the earlier chapter, “Highlands,” with an emphasis on the ongoing pilgrimage that Dylan allegorizes. (Surprisingly, there’s no reference to the Never Ending Tour in that context). Herren’s ultimate point is that the Time Out of Mind-era Dylan has moved into allegory and away from binary moralism (good vs. evil, serving the devil or the Lord, etc.).


Not done yet, but we’re getting there. Herren’s third contextual level involves race in America, a critical frame he describes as “intertwined with and yet distinct from the murder ballads and religious allegory levels of meaning” (91). I was just about to scratch my head about the relationship when he explained it this way: “The recurring motif of a man searching desperately for a woman – a motif that suggests a predatory stalker and killer viewed from one vantage point, and a pilgrim on a religious quest seen from a parallax view – works on a third level as emblematic of the African American search for freedom, justice, equality, and dignity” (91). My scalp remained a little itchy, for this is a stretch, but I was willing to press on. Dylan’s engagement with the struggle for civil rights vis-à-vis the folk/blues tradition is a bit more evident and accessible than the critical frameworks required for the first two chapters: safe to assume most readers know more about racial inequality than metempsychosis. Herren’s focus in setting up this chapter is on the riskiness of Dylan, or any white artist, representing the lives and experiences of African Americans. This is an important inquiry, and Herren approaches it with clarity and sensitivity. His conclusion is neither that white artists should never tread on this ground nor that cultural appropriation is everyone’s right, but rather that context is everything. “Hybridity” is a goal, “essentialism” is a danger. Herren draws from some prominent sources – Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul Gilroy, Zadie Smith – to help navigate these troubled waters.


There’s more than a little anxiety around this touchy subject which spotlights the ethics of the white artist speaking about the Black experience. I do think thorough interrogations of this subject in Dylan are important. There are many examples throughout his early career in which he inhabits this space, such as “Oxford Town” or “Hurricane” in addition to the ones that Herren analyzes or alludes to. As applied to Time Out of Mind, though, it was the hardest to see in terms of the overall argument, and this chapter – the longest in the study – was the least persuasive of the three. During my first readthrough of this book I occasionally wondered if what we really have here is three books, three separate contexts for reading Dylan, each of which could be even more probing than this one if the author had focused on Dylan’s entire career rather than just one album/ meta-work. In fact, Herren does pull quite a bit from Dylan’s earlier and later work in his analysis: this chapter opens with a lengthy consideration of 1962’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” which Dylan never included on an album and which he later denounced as a “bullshit song” (96). While it’s a fine analysis, it struck me that we’re a long way from the purported focus on the album that initiates Dylan’s late-career renaissance. Herren continues his analysis with a sustained look at “Blind Willie McTell,” another bootleg left off Infidels, a decade-and-a-half before the album under consideration. Herren spends much more time setting up his reading of Time Out of Mind in the context of race than he does analyzing the songs on Time Out of Mind: the first thirty-two pages of the chapter are buildup, the last sixteen include close readings of two songs from the album, one of which is not on the album.


Herren’s reading of “Trying to Get to Heaven” in the context of the fugitive slave dream-level is convincing, but brief compared to some of his earlier close readings. He moves into “Mississippi,” which, as we know, is not actually on the album (though Herren is so thoroughly convinced that it should have been that he starts one sentence about it this way: “Unlike other songs on Time Out of Mind…” [130]). I’m not sure the stretch to include “Mississippi” pays off, even setting aside my reservations about including it in the meta-work: I found it the least focused of all the close readings in the study, which are generally excellent. If it were not included, that would mean that this whole dimension of the argument – the dream-level from the perspective of a fugitive slave – really only applies to one song on Time Out of Mind. This is at odds with Herren’s claim that “Dylan draws deeply” from his understanding of America’s racist history “time and again in Time Out of Mind” (90). Herren does scatter a few quotations from other songs on the album, but in terms of sustained analysis, there’s just not enough evidence to convince me.


So I’m back where I started, worried about the line between a study of a single album and a study that has broader applications for a deeper understanding of Dylan over the course of his career. This final chapter is the one that leaves my brow furrowed since it has the least to do with Time Out of Mind and the most to do with a context that demands further exploration in Dylan more generally. Granted, it’s not as though the topic hasn’t been broached before.[2] But Herren works very hard to create the context here and I think he owes himself more space to substantiate it with additional close readings of songs from the album under consideration, if it’s possible to do so. This chapter also stands in place of a conclusion to the entire argument. My brow might have relaxed a little if there were a standard concluding chapter reflecting on the three “levels” of the dreamer at the end of the book to close the frame that opened it in the introduction, but the argument about the race dimension concludes the book a little abruptly.


My conclusion, then, is that Herren says quite a bit, and says it well enough that it warrants the attention of other critics, and yet I think he has more to say, especially about race, and not just how it applies to Time Out of Mind. I hope it’s clear at the end of this lengthy review that what might seem like my fussiness over how an album is defined is actually an earnest debate about whether Dylan’s massive body of work is best approached in terms of individual texts (be they songs or albums) or whether it’s inevitable to make connections that span his songbook. In addition to the four songs Herren adds to the meta-work, I count more than thirty additional songs that he quotes from during the analysis. This indicates to me that Dylan’s enormous oeuvre nearly forces us to make connections across it, or, put differently, that he creates and recreates his own contexts that are in conversation with the contexts we critics bring to the work. What’s an album? In the case of the astonishing sixty-year career of the world’s most celebrated songwriter, a fragment. Or it’s a coherent text. Here it’s something in-between. I found the approaches involving murder ballads and religious allegory engaging and insightful about Time Out of Mind, but the approach involving race left me hoping that the topic will be more broadly applied and more thoroughly explored in subsequent work.


[1] Larry Starr, Listening to Bob Dylan (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2021), 90.

[2] See, for one example, Mike Marqusee’s Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art (New Press, 2003).

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

REVIEW by Nathan Schmidt, Indiana University Bloomington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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