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

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent Scholar, Luxembourg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

REVIEW BY David Thurmaier, University of Missouri, Kansas City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spencer Leigh. Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues. Carmarthen, Wales, U.K.: McNidder and Grace, 2020. xi + 511 pp. $22.95.

REVIEW BY D. Quentin Miller, Suffolk University

Like Dylan himself, no label is going to contain this book. As it sat in the middle of our coffee table for the past few months (causing the legs to bow slightly), Dylan’s angelic eyes on the cover arresting the attention of anyone walking by, my bookmark traveling slowly toward the final pages, my wife asked, “What exactly is it?” Biography? Check. Analysis? Check. Overview? Yup. Anthology of pithy quotations culled from interviews? Certainly. Context-building historical and cultural study? That, too. Although I’d stop short of describing the book as an encyclopedia, I think it’s fair to describe it as encyclopedic. I honestly had to double-check on more than one occasion to make sure it was written by one person.

That one person is Spencer Leigh, a Liverpool-based radio personality who has hosted a show on BBC Radio for some thirty-five years and who has published books on Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Fury, Buddy Holly (two), and the Beatles (four), to name a few. It’s clear that he knows a hell of a lot about popular music in general and Dylan in particular, and it’s fair to say that Outlaw Blues is an extremely accomplished record of his considerable understanding. In addition to sheer knowledge, his passion for his subject is palpable. The book brims with energy (until the last couple of chapters, as I’ll discuss later). When I described my slow-moving bookmark earlier, it wasn’t to imply that the book was dull in any way, just big. Very big.

Have I mentioned it’s a big book? The 511 pages listed above don’t really tell the full story. These are 511 pages without margins, printed in a font that I dare say most of Dylan’s fans couldn’t make out without some pretty strong reading glasses. The bigness of the book can’t be overlooked, and I regard it as potentially both its chief strength and its chief weakness. First to the strengths, since I hold Leigh’s book in high esteem, and I want to lead by highlighting them.

Outlaw Blues is strikingly nonconventional, which Dylan aficionados should appreciate. The author describes it in the introduction as “the story of Bob Dylan” (x), but also acknowledges in no uncertain terms that Dylan is “mercurial” (ix), mysterious, unknowable, and evasive (though he balks at the word “enigmatic,” suggesting it indicates a failure to dig deep enough). Late in the book he describes Dylan’s “unpredictability” as the only thing that is predictable about him (397) and the thing Leigh loves most about him (414). In keeping with the spirit of that idea, the book is a little unpredictable, too. Leigh describes the structure in his introduction: each chapter essentially begins with thick context, which might involve Dylan’s most recent location, or one of his musical influences, or a certain dimension of history that framed his transformations. The second part of each chapter (which is always the most substantial) traces Dylan’s life with an emphasis on his creative output: primarily songwriting, recording, and touring, but also the side projects, such as Tarantula and other writing, painting, and film excursions. (As he says, “If you just want Bob’s story, then you can read the second sections on their own” [xi].) The third section of each chapter is the wild card in which the author might bring in a contemporary artifact, such as the recent Broadway adaptation of “Girl from the North Country” or the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis as a lens back into the time period that dominates the chapter, or as a demonstration of Dylan’s ongoing influence on music and on culture more generally.

In short, the book keeps readers on their toes, inviting them into the broad Dylan universe and encouraging them to linger in it, enjoying the journey for which the author acts as a tour guide. As he says late in the book, “If a reader is coming to Bob Dylan for the first time with this book, then I don’t think he or she could predict what would be on the next page” (414). Certainly true, but I really don’t imagine any reader of this book would be a neophyte. In fact, I imagine the reader of this book to be someone who knows Dylan more than just casually. You would have to be a fan or even a superfan to commit to this level of detail. Leigh knows this, too: on the same page, when he speculates about a first-time Dylan reader, he addresses the reader directly after summarizing Dylan’s interview style: “But you know all this” (414). Yes. We know it even better by this point in the book. I teach a course on Dylan, but by the book’s conclusion I felt like I’d taken one. That’s a high compliment.

The number of books about Dylan is growing all the time, and in addition to “who is this one for?” the crucial question is: “what does this one add?” Leigh is aware of the way others have told Dylan’s story or analyzed his work, and he nods toward previous publications when necessary without letting them interfere with his flow. There is a bibliography at the book’s conclusion that indicates what others have said, and he occasionally quotes from these works (especially Scaduto), but this is not an academic study: we shouldn’t expect a thorough review of the literature followed by a statement of how this work departs. The dominant genre is more journalism than literary/cultural criticism, and even more specifically radio journalism, I would argue. It reads a little like an extended radio program with the host frequently pivoting to include the words of Dylan’s fellow travelers and inner circle, naming them before letting their words do the talking. The effect is to give a rich multivocal context for Leigh’s core study. His is the central voice, but he is generous in letting others have a turn at the mic, including Dylan himself. What the book adds to the growing corpus of Dylanology is a living archive of opinions, analysis, and anecdotes, closer in nature in some ways to one of Scorsese’s recent documentaries than to the books listed in the bibliography.

The author knows music and musicians very, very well, and the book has the potential to expand our sense of Dylan’s influences, his milieu, and the next generation of musicians he influenced. There is, appropriately, a healthy amount of attention paid to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Robbie Robertson, Peter Yarrow, and others we might expect, but also a good number of pages devoted to Phil Ochs, Kinky Friedman, Manfred Mann, and Kris Kristofferson, all of whom might have been diminished or overlooked in a different book. The author’s ability to deftly string together the voices of Dylan’s milieu constitutes the chief strength of Outlaw Blues.

In short, if you’re looking for a magic key that will unlock a mystical understanding of Bob Dylan, it’s not here, and probably not anywhere. Those who labor to interpret his work realize that. If you’re looking for a dense, thorough overview with plenty of anecdotes about Dylan’s development against the backdrop of the turbulent ‘60s, misunderstood ‘70s, best-forgotten ‘80s, and so on, right up almost through Rough and Rowdy Ways, you’re in luck. This one’s got all that and then some, and it has the advantage of an affable and knowledgeable host/author who is a clear writer and appreciator of Dylan, even as he insists that the book is “not hagiography” (x).

Those are the strengths, or some of them. So: what are the pitfalls of a big book about a protean subject written for a niche audience?

One, selection. In order to tell Dylan’s story in such a way that it appears as a story, I believe, you have to select a “pivotal moment” and build outward from there. Stories have an arc. If you were to write about Dylan’s relationship to the Bible, you might focus on his conversion to Christianity and back again as the climax of the story. If you were to write about Dylan’s fraught relationship with the public, you might begin with his motorcycle accident-fueled disappearance following the exhausting mid-‘60s tour, or perhaps his vanishing act after the Nobel announcement. If you were to write about Dylan’s contributions to the evolution of rock music, Newport. But if you’re tracing Dylan’s story from start to now, you have to choose that moment and emphasize it as the moment to lean on. In this book which doesn’t claim a single aspect of Dylan but rather tries to get them all in, there are multiple candidates for the pivotal moment, but one does seem more important than the others. That moment in this book is clearly Dylan’s polarizing tours of England, balancing like a mattress on a bottle of wine on that “Judas!” shout we have all come to know so well. If you want to know about Dylan, the book insists, start by scrutinizing that incident. Yes, it’s convincing. But also, it’s familiar.

Put differently, the Judas moment is well-recorded in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back and deepened in Scorsese’s No Direction Home, to take only cinematic renditions of the infamous event. It’s the stuff of legend. Leigh is working with so much more material, and yet he locates the story’s climax in a familiar place, making us feel we’re walking a road other men have gone down. Leigh’s involvement in the mid-‘60s England tours, clearly a main reason he’s so fascinated by Dylan, is personal. He speaks (as Scorsese and Pennebaker never would or could have) of how the history of British football framed Dylan’s 1965 appearance in Liverpool (Liverpool! who had just beaten Leeds for the League, and the FA Cup!). As a soccer fan I found details such as this one amusing and charming, but . . . most American readers of this book wouldn’t know Leeds from Liverpool, and what’s an FA Cup? More, Leigh attends the concert with a girlfriend Diana who was not a Dylan fan. We get to hear about the disastrous date, how Diana called it a waste of two hours of her life, and how Leigh considered that she’d also wasted some of his precious time . . . but he promises to tell us later how they managed to get together for another try at long-lasting love, and part of the test of that love is another Dylan concert. Leigh puts it this way: “in 1966 we were again having a threesome with Bob Dylan” (175). [This reader: Facepalm.] Since she couldn’t appreciate Dylan, Leigh implies, he couldn’t tolerate her, calling her “hapless” the second time around (207). Their ill-fated relationship might be an interesting anecdote for a dinner party, but I don’t think it tells us anything about Dylan. I really wouldn’t have a problem with a memoir called Dylan and Me, and Girlfriend Makes Three, but this book isn’t that, and it’s so much more than that. The brief personal anecdotes intrude more than they illuminate.

Two, tangents. A more streamlined book shaped by an editor with an eye on the page count would have let the author know where he was wandering. It’s not as though anything in this book is irrelevant, but a book ought to be intentional about its forward motion. We came for Dylan, and although context is important, I sometimes felt as though I wanted to interrupt the author to remind him who he was supposed to be talking about. This point is related to selection and emphasis, but a little different because I’m primarily talking about the context sections. Chapter one tells about Minnesota, starting with the way the ice age flattened out glaciers to make the prairie. Okay, I’m along for the ride here, I thought; I can handle a little geological history, and I forged on. Chapter two gave me 13 pages on the history of the blues and the Beat generation, and I remained cool with it. The history of cultural events “that caused a stir” that preceded Dylan’s Newport appearance, though, from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, to Coleridge and Byron’s drug experimentation, to Wagner, to Stravinsky, to Joyce, to Picasso, to . . . you get the idea. Such background could go on forever, and when I felt like it was, I got a touch impatient. I can imagine readers who aren’t as used to academic writing as I am would be even more impatient. Such points can be made effectively and economically, especially in a book about a figure who is complex enough on his own.

The longest tangent is easily the lengthy section on The Band. Obviously, The Band’s story is related to Dylan’s, but here it threatens to eclipse Dylan’s for the better part of a chapter. The Band’s story constitutes its own history and deserves a book of its own (and in fact recently got just that, albeit from the perspective of its central songwriter Robbie Robertson in a memoir entitled Testimony, tellingly included in the bibliography of Outlaw Blues).

Three, emphasis. In a book this ambitious, it’s clear that not everything will be treated equally, and part of my point about selection is that the author has chosen to include virtually all the information he has amassed about Dylan. That’s nearly true, but even in Dylan’s personal history, which is a key component of this book if not its main focus, there is a sometimes frustrating unevenness caused by an imperfect sense of emphasis. Dylan’s relationship with his first wife Sara is especially underwritten. She appears in the narrative mysteriously, without a clear indication of how she arrived in his life. She’s suddenly just there, though furtively, replacing Joan Baez (who gets a great deal of time on the mic, and who thus becomes three-dimensional in a way Sara does not). Sara disappears much more emphatically: we get to read about the messy divorce settlement, the amount of money she was awarded, her punching a teacher as she picks up the young Jakob from school. This is the only detailed description of her in the book, and she is somehow left out of the index at the back completely despite the fact that even Dylan’s girlfriends are listed there (and listed as such). Although this isn’t a straight-up biography and I don’t expect a thorough look at Sara, she is a major figure in Dylan’s personal story and this portrait of her is a mere outline of a sketch, and not a very flattering one even so.

I reached the point about three-fourths of the way through when I realized we’d only made it to 1980, which left forty years to cover. It’s clear and obvious that the 1960s and 1970s were Dylan’s great decades, and it’s not surprising that the author chooses to emphasize them: some of Dylan’s fans would prefer to pretend the ’80s and some of the ‘90s didn’t exist. And yet, if we’re looking for something new about Dylan, the last four decades are less explored than the first two, and one would think that a story of the complete Dylan would spend more time here. I will say that Leigh manages to get quite a bit into the last quarter of the book, and he is generous when it comes to some albums that critics dismissed, honest about the Live Aid performance and a couple of disastrous movie projects, and knowledgeable about possibly overlooked details from this period, including the Theme Time Radio Hour program Dylan hosted from 2006 through 2009 (and again in 2020). The Traveling Wilburys get a kind and expansive treatment here. But it’s undeniable that the energy of the book falters in the late chapters. There’s less enthusiasm for the late Dylan, less of an attempt to understand him and more of an attempt to catalog his various projects. The substance of the late chapters too often involves a reproduction of the set lists at the many concerts Dylan has given as part of the Never Ending Tour. Mildly interesting if you weren’t at a particular show. Actually, if I’m being honest, not interesting, not unless the patterns of what he played were interpreted.

Which leads me to my final complaint: a shakiness in the interpretive approach, or the book’s actual thesis, or mission, or through-line, or argument: call it what you will. I want to emphasize that Leigh isn’t an academic and I am, so it might seem unfair for me to critique his methodology and to expect some critical consistency. And yet, all books seek to advance understanding, so even those which aren’t all the way at the academic end of the spectrum have to be clear about their critical premises. I want to emphasize that the author knows so much about Dylan and the music that surrounds him that it dazzles and bewitches the reader, this reader included. What I’m grousing about is what he does (or sometimes doesn’t do) with that knowledge. There are times in the book—most of it, in fact—when the intent is clear: he is helping the reader get closer to an understanding of a figure who is unique, inscrutable, controversial, fascinating, etc., and he accomplishes this through gathering everything he can and binding it together. Sometimes, though, it feels like an attic full of boxes more than a curated exhibit. One way for an author to get readers closer to understanding Dylan is to do the tough work of interpreting the lyrics, or the music, or ideally (as Christopher Ricks has said) the two together. Here Leigh sometimes seems nervous. Occasionally he offers a close reading of the lyrics, and the resulting interpretation gives the reader something to hang onto. At other times, he seems to give up on such analysis. “Dylan will never provide footnotes for his songs,” he tells us in his introduction. (True, and we’d be fools to trust them if he did, knowing his tendency to toy with us.) Very late in the book, discussing the song “License to Kill,” he laments, “It’s only a song and doesn’t have to mean anything but it is still perplexing. Sometimes I wish Dylan’s songs came with footnotes” (345).  But . . . that’s a job for critics, isn’t it? Like you?

And this is where the academic in me wants a little more. I certainly don’t expect a close interpretation of every song mentioned in a book this big by a songwriter as prolific as Dylan, but I don’t want the author to give up on the notion of interpretation altogether. He is more comfortable going through the albums and declaring which tracks are the best, and which aren’t so inspiring. That type of assessment is a form of criticism, of course, but it also requires a little more work than it’s sometimes given here. He calls “I Believe in You” from Slow Train Coming “one of Dylan’s greatest performances. The song is very good, but is it a love song or a song about Jesus? It can be taken either way” (335). Again, he’s leaving the interpretation to the reader, but I’m more interested in why the author considers this song one of Dylan’s greatest, or what he means by “very good.” Not arguing, just waiting to be convinced. He says of a performance in Tel Aviv from 1987, “He did well but not great” (368). Again, tell me more.

On one occasion the author argues that Dylan has encoded meaning in a kind of acronym game: “The album is called Under the Red Sky, UTRS—say that fast and you have Uterus, another indication that this is a children’s album” (389). So, yeah, no: in asking for more consistent interpretation, I’m not hoping for more of that, nor of the speculation that the title of Pennebaker’s film Dont Look Back “could also refer to John Osborne’s play, Don’t Look Back in Anger, which was at the forefront of the kitchen sink dramas” (178). The title of the play in question is Look Back in Anger, just the opposite. (Oasis added the “Don’t” as the title of their 1996 hit, which may explain the confusion, but sort it out before committing it to print.) These two moments—not in any way typical—are just a different way to suggest that a stronger editorial hand might have helped focus and streamline the book, and might have also scrubbed out speculative or inaccurate moments like these that can serve to distract. (Along those lines, I won’t groan here about the frequent puns, but I did groan when I read a few of them.)

For its ambition and its enthusiasm, for its passion and scope, and for its understanding of Dylan’s many dimensions and radical transformations, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues is a worthy addition to any fan’s bookshelf. As “the story of Bob Dylan,” it doesn’t fully arrive at the intent of a story—to lend focus and clarity to a subject, and to suggest a shape that takes the form of a narrative—partly because Dylan’s story refuses to cohere and partly because this lush garden could have used a little more pruning. The intent to try to approach Dylan’s story creatively as Leigh does here is reason enough to read it, appreciate it, learn from it, even while wishing for that elusive clarity, focus, and narrative form.

Patrick Webster, A Wanderer by Trade: Gender in the Songs of Bob Dylan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019. 195 pp.

REVIEW BY Matthew Lipson, Independent Scholar

Patrick Webster’s A Wanderer by Trade: Gender in the Songs of Bob Dylan employs foundational cultural and gender theory to address the tricky issue of Dylan’s treatment of women and sex, as well as the feminine and masculine spheres in Dylan’s work. It’s a murky and necessary topic, especially loaded and fertile in the wake of the #MeToo era and the ongoing, even existential issue of gender dynamics and social justice. And if Dylan’s work speaks to life as it happens, the nature of love, relationships, and religion, then A Wanderer by Trade grapples not just with issues of gender and sexuality within Dylan’s world, but by implication, a larger world, too. It’s as wide-ranging an undertaking as it sounds, especially given the sheer breadth of Dylan’s canon and various personae.

For this reason Webster narrows the field to Dylan’s catalogue up to 1985, calling it Dylan’s most significant period, and asserts that rarely has Dylan’s post-1985 work been as worthy of study. While this drawing of lines will divide readers, especially given the critical acclaim and accolades of Dylan’s twenty-first century output, the extensive focus on a handful of songs does allow for some provocative close readings.

Webster’s central contention is that with a poststructuralist perspective, we may read Dylan’s lyrics for the ways in which the performative aspects of gender identity play out in his narratives, as well as the ways in which those aspects and modern notions of sexuality conflict within Dylan’s versions of masculinity. The argument is not without flaws, offering more of an introduction to gender theory through a Dylanological lens than a study of Dylan’s lyrics from a gender theory approach. Even so, A Wanderer by Trade excels at what it does, weaving between its theoretical foundation and its subject.

The notion of misogyny and strongly gendered narratives in Dylan’s work may not be news, but it is necessary and meaningful territory and a timely step toward modernizing Dylan criticism. Webster draws fascinating links between the masculine domain and travel in early Dylan, highlighting Dylan’s classic tropes of male rambling and roaming, getting away, abandoning, and the romanticization of the highway as a metaphor for self-discovery and reprieve, particularly from women. Granted, the trope of men “escaping” women who have done them wrong, or vice-versa, hardly begins or ends with Dylan; as with his lyrics and melodies, the topic of male victimhood falls firmly within the folk and blues traditions. Not only do Dylan’s men seek to escape from women, but more broadly from the confinement of their dreams by women and familial responsibility. Men, Webster claims, travel as a way of protecting themselves from the inconsistencies in their own gendered identities, hitting the road as a method of performing and reasserting their own masculinity.

While this reading of gender performance in Dylan’s world certainly has its merits, Webster’s theory stops short of such a reading’s implications. Why are men free to ramble and roam, shirking their duties in favor of soul-searching expeditions? Why do men get to leave in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “One More Night,” and “Isis”? If travel is an inherently masculine act, at least in Dylan’s world, is it still performative? And what of exceptions, as in “Boots of Spanish Leather,” where women travel, leaving men behind to fill the traditionally female role of pining lover receiving love letters? Webster leaves questions of the morality of men’s travel in Dylan’s lyrics wide open, favoring a laissez-faire reading of masculinity.

Webster does, however, follow up his discussion of masculinity by basing the next chapter on the question of why so many of Dylan’s lyrics contain seemingly misogynistic sentiments. Even more puzzling, as the author points out, is the question of why Dylan’s men are consistently suspicious and even hostile toward women and yet “irredeemably drawn to them.” Countless examples are featured here, naming the women in Dylan’s songs as “deceivers, castrators, temptresses, often unfaithful” and calculating in their intent to trap men into a web of responsibility and danger. Webster does a fine job of categorizing the themes of Dylan’s misogyny, though an audience of Dylan scholars, likely already aware of misogynistic tendencies in Dylan and his male songwriting peers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, will find the discussion cumbersome.

Still, the question of the root of misogyny in Dylan’s narratives lingers. Webster hints at the performative aspect of gender early on, the male-dominated blues tradition, and even the notion of Christ’s masculinity as a potential reason for diminishing the feminine sphere during Dylan’s born-again years. What Webster makes clear, though, is the sheer breadth of Dylan’s approaches to femininity, or rather, the nuances of female gender constructs. In Dylan’s world, Webster asserts, women are not simply angelic or demonic, inviolate or inviolable, confused or contemptible. They are enigmatic, maternal, deceptive at times, subservient at others. And though the chapter defers any straightforward answers to the question it poses of why men are simultaneously suspicious of and drawn to women, it highlights the messy and fractured nature of gender constructs and romantic love in Dylan’s lyrics and attitudes.

Webster works his way from gender as a performative construct to its role in sexuality, both hetero- and homosexual. The claim that Dylan exhibited a puritanical, indifferent attitude toward sex throughout the 1960s mostly holds true, though certainly unrequited heterosexual romantic love is a salient theme in so much of Dylan’s early output. Still, the author suggests that Dylan is and has been misread as a heterosexual artist writing about heterosexual subjects; when so many songs lack gender pronouns, why do we assume “It Ain’t Me, Babe” isn’t Dylan’s preeminent gay anti-love statement? The simple answer, according to Webster, is that nothing in the text suggests otherwise. Webster also highlights the potential for latent homosexuality in Dylan’s work, citing what Craig McGregor calls the “camp bitchiness” of his 1966 persona. The example speaks more to the datedness of many of A Wanderer by Trade’s references than it does to any convincing commentary on Dylan’s identification with homosexuality. One cannot also help but feel that Dylan’s circumstances at the time, including his marriage to Sara Lownds and alleged trysts, diminishes Webster’s post-structuralist reading.

The chapter is framed by Dylan’s born-again attitudes toward homosexuality and examines vastly differing attitudes toward sex and sexuality throughout his career. This is done in a sort of zigzagging way as the author works through Judeo-Christian views toward sex, all to ask, not unreasonably, why would someone as seemingly sensible as Dylan buy into the homophobia and dogma promoted throughout the born-again era? Webster does a fine job of highlighting the juxtaposition between Dylan’s born-again sermons (“You pray for ungodly vice and you’ll get it, ungodly vice and lust,” he once said of San Francisco’s gay community) and his earlier nonchalance about sexual binaries. He also posits that by 1979, Dylan’s belief in salvation through the romantic love of women runs dry, replaced by the love of Christ instead. The period of 1979–1981, however, represents a vacuum in Dylan’s otherwise indifference to the modalities of human sexuality. Webster even goes as far as to suggest that Dylan’s interest in male-female sexual relationships is overblown. Rather, it is femininity, and to a greater degree, masculinity, with which Dylan is especially concerned.

A Wanderer by Trade’s penultimate chapter meditates on the roles of gender and sex in Dylan’s own persona. Webster contends that more worthwhile than any biographical information we might use to demystify Dylan is to consider the ways in which “Bob Dylan” the legend works as an exploration of masculine identity. A central feature of the section is the idea of the “enemy within,” the twin, the search for the lost “other,” and sex as a means by which we seek to reunite with our other half. That half, Webster intimates, is none other than the gender identity which we are not. It is this gender anxiety that drives men to women and to simultaneously distance themselves from the feminine sphere.

It’s a convincing argument on paper, grounded in the theories of Freud and Lacan. It is also, however, where Dylan criticism so often folds in on itself, reaching so far as to ordain Dylan time and again as a sort of omniscient vessel for the human psyche. The theoretical foundation remains strong, but the notion of Dylan or his subjects working, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, in a Lacanian world, may for some ring hollow. Perhaps knowing that, Webster adds the caveat that this is again one of many possible readings.

Dylan critics and scholars ought to be encouraged by the multitude of issues raised in Webster’s book. As cultural texts, Dylan’s work from the period studied here offers insight into both his own treatment of gender identity and sexuality, and the evolution of those themes in popular music at large. The decade to come may serve not as a reckoning for the kind of machismo depicted in Dylan’s work, but as a basis on which to continue bringing Dylan studies forward into the current societal re-evaluation of gender dynamics and sexual multiplicities. In this sense, A Wanderer by Trade offers hope for a future understanding of the nuances in Dylan’s depiction of women rather than a continued mass shying away from his more unsavory tendencies. Despite its flaws, including the dated nature of Webster’s references and the book’s own tendency to wander, A Wanderer by Trade aims to grapple with themes long dismissed in the study of Dylan, and for that it should be commended.

Baron Wormser. Songs from a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Songwriter and Performer. Norwalk, CT: Woodhall Press, 2019. 178 pp. $17.95.

REVIEW BY Tommy Shea

When you’re making yourself up, there’s no map.

– Abe Runyan

He’s a kid from Somethingsville, Minnesota, a place where the wind hits heavy on the borderline, where the rivers freeze and the summers end way too soon.

Before the age of twelve, Abe Starker’s hobby was stamp collecting. But then he was gifted a beige transistor radio. And he started hearing voices.

Hank Williams, Ma Rainey, the Carter Family, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed . . .

They became another family, different from his mother, father, sister, and grandmother, but no less real.

The new voices sounded like “they were coming a long distance. . . . They weren’t perfect, but that’s why the songs existed, because things weren’t perfect.”

Something then started to change inside Abe Starker.

He was already taking life seriously. He thought a lot but felt even more. His wanting became different. Then Abe diagnosed himself with an incurable case of the metaphysical blues. He had a guitar in his hands when he did.

Abe decided he wanted to take himself home, “to my truest place—my imagination.” He wrote a song, then another.

“What I wanted to do wasn’t taught in any college,” he said.

Abe ended up in Greenwich Village.

Under a personal construction, believing he was in need of a new name, Abe came up with Runyan.

It rhymed with that of his childhood hero, Paul Bunyan, and was also the name of a dead New York writer who wrote about guys and dolls and didn’t need it anymore.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it is.

Sort of.

But this is a new story, as alive as today.

Weaving fact, fiction, and a rare sensitivity, Baron Wormser is a storyteller who’s a master at crafting revealing moments, growing pains, discoveries, and, in prose as smooth as a rhapsody, explores how deep a song can go.

In his novel Songs from a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Songwriter and Performer, Wormser uses the young and old Bob Dylan as his muse.

And those of the Dylanish main character.

Along with Man and God and law, the rest of the sparks to his flames are all here: William Blake, Little Richard, Lord Randall, Odetta, Dostoevsky and Modigliani, just as they all are on Montague Street in the basement down the stairs.

Baron Wormser must have been there, too, leaning close, listening, thinking, taking it all in and all down, merging the music and the art into Abe Runyan, someone who sings from the pages as real as your favorite song.

Dylan fans will nod along to the familiar journey. Readers who don’t know a thing about the North Country will nod as they reflect on the captivating tale of self-reinvention via art that goes on to reinvent the world.

Both camps will find the lyrical in Wormser’s style, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. This Maryland-born, Vermont-based author of seventeen previous books is also an acclaimed and longtime poet who served as the 2000 poet laureate of Maine, where his life included nearly twenty-five years living off the grid, a timespan and experience gorgeously chronicled in The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid. He’s very much at home dipping his pen into political topics, as he did so deftly in the poems that fill Carthage, a timeless and timely look at the toxic combo of top-level power and ignorance. And fiction set against historical events is not a new avenue for Wormser—find his novel Tom o’Vietnam for his view from a fictional veteran’s boots and journey. Songs from a Voice sings to the author’s ability to take the winds of the old days that are an inspiration and make it his character’s own, to make us want to follow each step Abe Runyan takes, and have the front row seat for not only each song but each sentence.

Wormser has said his goal was to have the reader “feel the complexity of an artistic imagination as it issues from one particular life.” That might be the only time he erred on any of these pages, because we take not just one but two men’s creativity and gifts with us when we close this book, feeling keenly the complexity of both Runyan’s and Wormser’s gifts to the world.

Terry Gans. Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels. Cornwall, U.K.: Red Planet Books, 2020. 283 pp.

REVIEW BY Walter Raubicheck, Pace University

The establishment of the Bob Dylan Archive [BDA] in Tulsa marks the beginning of a new era of Dylan scholarship, revolutionary in scope and potential impact. Gaining access to multiple early drafts of lyrics as well as preliminary takes of officially released songs will significantly broaden our knowledge of both Dylan’s working methods and his artistic vision. The depth and breadth of the tapes, manuscripts, notebooks, and handwritten notes are simply astounding. Certainly the BDA is an inestimable gift to those who wish to study his work.

One of the first products to emerge from work in this archive is the new book by Terry Gans, Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels, published by Red Planet Books. The subtitle references Dylan’s working title for the album, and the book traces the evolution of the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements from his earliest ideas for the record in 1982 to its release in the fall of 1983. It is a fascinating journey; Gans presents us with the results of his work in a well-ordered, meticulous manner that is a testament to the hours he spent listening to studio tapes and reading folders filled with Infidels-related material—and obviously taking copious notes. What we are given here is as thorough as it is revelatory.

I for one am grateful that Gans devoted this time and hard work to this particular record, which tends to be overlooked when lists of Dylan’s “Ten Greatest Albums” are composed and compared. Infidels usually fails to compete with the three mid-‘60s classics, the ‘70s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, or such late-period triumphs like Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. This is due in part to a common perception that the ‘80s were Dylan’s “Lost Decade,” one in which he lacked a sense of direction and purpose after he completed the Christian trilogy. Supposedly he only found this direction again with Oh Mercy in 1989. I would argue that Infidels is infused with a newfound purpose, felt on each track, and that the album is one of Dylan’s deepest meditations on the modern world, every bit as insightful and revealing as those found on Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. And now we have Gans’s book to provide convincing evidence to support this claim . . . though he himself refrains from such critical evaluations.

In his Foreword, Gans clarifies his purpose in writing the book, which does not include interpreting what he discovered in his research:

I will do my best to avoid hopeless traps like ’Bob must have thought’ or ‘Here is what Dylan meant’ . . . my hope is to stick to the facts: the drafts, notebook jottings. . . . We can all study clues, we can all enjoy songs and we can all cherish the journey of interpretation. To paraphrase: if you want a meaning you can trust, trust yourself.

So the book resists all attempts to compare, for example, the religious content of Infidels to that of the explicitly Christian perspective of the preceding three albums or the religious imagery in the later Oh Mercy. This is the book’s strength, and its limitation.

The book is organized chronologically as it discusses the stages of the creative process. It begins with information regarding where and when Dylan composed the songs in 1982 (often sailing the Caribbean islands on a boat he co-owned, Water Pearl); how he went about finding a producer (ultimately settling on Mark Knopfler); and which musicians he hired for the project. Then comes the heart of the book: Gans describes the recording sessions for each song in the order in which they were first attempted in the studio, regardless of whether they appear on the finished album or not. So we begin with “Blind Willie McTell,” since it was the first song recorded for the album, and end with “Death is Not the End”—sixteen songs in all. Only eight were released on the album, others were released on subsequent albums (including official bootlegs), and one was never released at all (“Julius and Ethel”). For each of the sixteen songs, Gans uses the tapes in the BDA to inform us as to how many takes exist for each song, and how they differ from one another in tempo, arrangement, and, quite often, lyrics, since Dylan did a lot of writing and rewriting of words in the studio during the sessions themselves. We are told how Dylan, Knopfler, and the engineers reacted to each take and what songs were played in the studio that day besides the one being recorded for the record (often blues jams). Following the chapter on “Death Is Not the End,” Gans lists the several cover songs that were recorded for possible release as well as what he calls the “Covers, Jams, Noodles, Etc” that Dylan and the musicians played for fun or relaxation in the studio in between the songs that were intended for the album or for separate release. He also devotes a chapter to describing the work that went into creating the two videos that were used to promote the album (“Sweetheart Like You” and “Jokerman”) as well as a rundown of Dylan’s March 22, 1984 performance on Late Night with David Letterman of two songs from the album (“Jokerman” and “License to Kill”).

Finally, Gans gives us useful appendices, especially the list of how often Dylan performed each song recorded during the Infidels sessions in subsequent years. We also receive a list of “Cliches, Aphorisms, and Images” that are either colloquialisms or adaptations of lines from other texts (which, as of 1983, were not yet considered scandalous). Interestingly, he also provides the information about each image and painting seen in the “Jokerman” video and concludes with a list of which songs, covers, and jams were played at each session between April 11, 1983 and May 5, 1983—the final session for Infidels.

It is instructive to learn how much Knopfler contributed to the album in terms of the arrangements, not to mention his constant affirmations and cheerleading. Also, to know for sure what Mick Taylor played, what Knopfler played, and how reliable and supportive Sly and Robby were gives us a new appreciation of the dynamic during the sessions. Since Knopfler had to leave in early May 1983 for a Dire Straits tour, he was not present for later overdubbing and mixing, during which Dylan took control. But the respect between him and Dylan comes through very clearly in the book, a respect that contributed to the wonderful performances and singing that characterize Infidels.

Surviving in a Ruthless World is now the definitive description of what went down in The Power Station Studio C in New York in April and May of 1983. The thoroughness that is the strength of the book, though, is also the source of a reader’s occasional frustration. To what end is the research pointing? Clearly that must be interpretation of the lyrics and a reconsideration of the place that Infidels occupies within the Dylan canon—which Gans has no intention of attempting. He largely leaves it up to us to address some of the traditional controversy surrounding the record: Does Infidels mark Dylan’s rejection of Christianity and his return to Judaism? Or is it a return to “secular music”? Why did he leave so many fine songs recorded at the sessions off the album, in particular “Blind Willie McTell”?

Despite himself, at times Gans does provide some interesting interpretations. In the discussion of “License to Kill” he writes that “the song encapsulates the core exploration of Infidels, the present-day self-absorbed species and its relationship with the Earth, its brethren and its Lord.” Similarly, he says in his conclusion,

Man could be viewed as the Infidel, betraying the promise of life and the earth the Lord provided. A case for the poisoned relationship between Man and the universe can be made in each song. Perhaps Infidels, with a global application, is a title better suited to the collection of songs than the more personal Surviving in a Ruthless World would have been.

These are insightful reflections about the overall vision of the record. But Gans does not explore this vision “in each song,” giving us instead a plethora of unused lyrics that, together with the lyrics on the album—along with the published lyrics—provide a framework for a fascinating insight into Dylan’s worldview in 1983.

In addition, the number and quality of early lyrics Gans found for Infidels in the Archive is surprising and impressive. Dylan’s writing for the album in 1982 and 1983—in notebooks, on typewritten drafts, on the stationery of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Manhattan, or created in the studio between takes—represents a resurgence of his unique lyrical abilities. After the heavy biblical imagery of the Christian albums, in which his own distinctive imagery was de-emphasized, the words he wrote for the Infidels songs are—well, Dylanesque. This new poetic vitality was first in evidence in several songs written during the Shot of Love sessions: “Every Grain of Sand,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “Caribbean Wind,” and “Angelina.” In fact, those four songs have more in common with the Infidels lyrics than they do with the other songs on Shot of Love or the songs on Saved and Slow Train Coming. Deeply religious, they express their spirituality in Dylan’s own symbolic language as opposed to the language of Christian scripture—even when they are conveying scriptural ideas.

Gans quotes or paraphrases many of the unused lyrics: for example, in his discussion of “Jokerman,” we learn that Dylan had written “standing in the river catching fish with your hands” for an opening line and that the prince in the final verse originally will “take your soul” and “take your children as his sacrifice.” In addition, the priests “at this point are not in a pocket but are turned ‘into pimps that make old men bark.’” The alternatives to the words Dylan sings on the album are often, but not always, just as powerful: and thanks to Gans, we now know what other lyrical possibilities Dylan the songwriter had to choose from. Why he made the choices he did, of course, can be known only by the songwriter, if they can be known at all.

Gans mentions that in 1983 Dylan studied with a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. Of course, when this news was broadcast at the time, it led to the popular theory that Dylan had abandoned Christianity and returned to his Jewish roots. Gans does not speculate on this piece of Dylan’s biography, but Infidels was cited at the time as evidence of this new “conversion.” Christ is not mentioned specifically in the recorded lyrics, the published lyrics, or the alternative lyrics Gans provides. And while “Neighborhood Bully” is a passionately pro-Israel song, no matter how Dylan tried to downplay that fact in interviews, a close reading of all the lyric alternatives indicates that the songwriter was drawing on concepts from both the Old and New Testament in these songs. For example, Gans points out that in a draft of “Clean Cut Kid” Dylan had written “MYSTERY BABYLON MOTHER OF WHORES,” a direct quote from the Book of Revelations. We also have in “Man of Peace” the star “that three men followed from the East.” That the Jokerman has “The Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy” as his only scriptural teachers does not indicate that he is adequately prepared to resist the temptations of evil. If the trio of albums that preceded Infidels can be considered his Christian phase, then Infidels can be considered a Biblical record, one whose vision includes ideas from both Testaments. In his Rolling Stone interview of June 1984 (an excellent companion piece to Infidels), when asked if the Old and New Testaments were “equally valid,” Dylan answered, “To me.”

These are the kinds of reflections that Gans’s book induces but does not carry out. As he says, any “speculations” he does make in his book are meant to “provoke” the reader, and clearly my reading of his book provoked me in many ways to re-think the meaning of Infidels and to reconsider its position within Dylan’s corpus. It has risen even higher in my estimation, certainly lyrically, but also musically. Knopler’s production is clean and crisp, his and Taylor’s licks always enhance the atmosphere of the songs, and Sly and Robbie’s rhythm section is rock solid. Dylan’s singing is strong on the rockers and both forceful and tender on mid-tempo ballads like “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and “Sweetheart Like You.” His singing has not yet accumulated the rasp that is first in evidence on Oh Mercy (and which he has learned to use for expressive purposes in his later work).

With Infidels, Dylan reclaimed his reputation as rock’s foremost wordsmith. After Blonde on Blonde he moved away from the powerfully surreal imagery of his most influential song/poems, attempting to find new veins of imagery within traditional country and folk, until he found his distinctive muse again on Blood on the Tracks. The lyrics of Desire adopted a consistently narrative mode, and while Street Legal was a grand attempt at recapturing the lyrical fire of his mid-‘60s work, it was a hit-and-miss affair. Then came the Christian songs in which Dylan restrained his own unique language in deference to his new-found religious vocabulary . . . until, as mentioned, a handful of songs intended for Shot of Love. But on Infidels we have a compelling vision of the world described with symbolic images drawn from the creative mind of Bob Dylan. (Who else could have written “Well he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool” or “He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull” or “No more mud cake creatures lying in your arms”?) Thanks to Terry Gans’s research and new book, we now know infinitely more about when Dylan first wrote these lyrics and what other words he conjured up in the context of this album.

Gans has provided the groundwork for all future studies of this important period in Dylan’s career. Anyone else who writes seriously about Infidels will need to begin by reading and studying Terry Gans’s Surviving in a Ruthless World.

Bob Dylan. “Whiskey.” Theme Time Radio Hour, Episode 102, September 2020.

REVIEW BY Michael Hacker, Independent Scholar


Dylanalchemy: Turning Whiskey into Gold

In September 2020, it was announced that Theme Time Radio Hour, the broadcast series curated by Bob Dylan, would be returning for a special two-hour episode after more than a decade’s hiatus. The new episode was themed “Whiskey,” and it was sponsored by Dylan’s own celebrity spirits label, Heaven’s Door. Theme Time Radio Hour originally ran on satellite radio from May 2006 to April 2009, stopping precisely after the airing of the 100th episode. (There was a later airing of Episode 101, known as the lost episode, which was titled “Kiss” and had to do with smooching.)

All of the episodes feature Dylan as a wise and all-knowing DJ with a twinkle in his raspy voice, announcing an hour’s worth of songs revolving around a particular theme. Episode One was called “Weather,” and included songs such as “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix and “Didn’t It Rain” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Each subsequent episode featured a different theme, with Dylan introducing the songs and spinning some historical background or a funny anecdote into the mix. The sound design harkens back to the golden era of radio, but the songs chosen span from the early days of records in the 1920s right up to the present moment—so you might hear a Louis Armstrong record bumped up next to a song by Reba McIntyre. By the time Dylan hung up his headphones in April 2009, the series had broadcast episodes ranging from “Trains” to “Divorce” to “Cops and Robbers.” At first, most people, pundits, and critics were amused by the venture and thought it quaint and charming, but as is so often the case with Dylan’s work, and especially his activities away from songwriting and performing, it slowly became obvious that this Theme Time Radio Hour series was a far more ambitious and consequential undertaking. In the process of making these episodes, Dylan not only showed us the vastness of his musical interests, but he also got to stick his nose and ears back into some old music and blow the dust off, which must have had a strong impact on Dylan’s own recent songwriting and choice of material to cover in live performance.

On September 21, 2020, the new episode aired, teasingly titled “Whiskey Part 1,” and was immediately digested (swallowed?) by legions of Dylan fans, whose ranks had recently swollen and become energized by the startlingly strong new album released by Dylan that June, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first thing acute listeners noticed upon hearing the new episode was that the female announcer had changed from the earlier broadcasts, and listeners no longer heard the sandpaper and satin voice of Ellen Barkin, that being replaced by the bourbon and honeyed tones of vocalist Diana Krall. After Krall’s noir-drenched dramatic intro, Dylan does his usual set-up, made somewhat unusual in this case by the fact that the episode is a one-off (for the moment, at least, much like Dylan’s lone memoir, Chronicles, Volume One), and also one driven by a marketing tie-in to the Heaven’s Door brand of whiskey. A few years back, Dylan joined other celebrity liquor peddlers like George Clooney (tequila), Marilyn Manson (absinthe), and Jay-Z (cognac) in what can often be a very lucrative business. The origin myth of Dylan’s whiskey brand goes something like this: in 2015, Dylan trademarked the name “Bootleg Whiskey.” The phrase appears memorably in Dylan’s haunted song about bluesman Willie McTell:

There’s a woman by the river

With some fine young handsome man

He’s dressed up like a squire

Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

An entrepreneur who owned a company set up to invest in new beverage startups came across the trademark registration and reached out to Dylan about starting a partnership. Heaven’s Door Whiskey launched in 2018 and currently sells various high-end bottles of whiskey, bourbon, and rye. The way most of these celebrity spirits companies work is that there is a big and mostly anonymous booze maker who mixes together a custom blend with input from the celebrity; in this case, Dylan said he wanted his whiskey to “feel like being in a wood structure.” The high-test liquid is then branded, bottled, and marketed per the celebrity’s particular taste and style—Dylan’s bottles are decorated with patterns from his metal sculpture gates, and they range in price from about forty dollars a bottle to several hundred for limited editions packaged with memorabilia.

At some level, this new episode of Theme Time Radio Hour is a nearly two-hour promotion for Dylan’s liquor business, an advertisement, a commercial. There are many examples of Dylan, our great artist, dipping his toe and sometimes diving headfirst into the green pool of filthy lucre, and even many of the most devoted Dylan people sometimes feel that Dylan has sullied his artistic integrity by getting involved in money-making ventures. Responses to Dylan-as-capitalist swing between two poles: at one end people believing Dylan is a genius who deserves every last penny he can squeeze from the public; at the other, people believing Dylan is a sell-out and always has been. Most people fall somewhere in between. And to be sure, Dylan has put his name on a long and sometimes comical list of products for sale. Recently, a line of Dylan-sanctioned clothing inspired by the Rolling Thunder tour appeared online, joining all manner of official Dylan-branded gewgaws, including key rings, drink coasters, coffee mugs, and tote bags. Over the years, Dylan has lent his name and music to a panoply of companies including Apple, IBM, Google, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Pepsi, among others. Dylan’s most infamous/beloved product tie-in was connected to the Victoria’s Secret lingerie line. Not only did Dylan allow the use of the song “Love Sick” for the campaign, but he also appeared in a slickly filmed commercial shot along the canals of Venice with supermodel Adriana Lima. (Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, Dylan and Lima never appear together in the same shot.)

And then, as I was in the middle of putting down words for this piece, news came that Dylan had sold the copyrights of his entire song catalog to the Universal Media Group for somewhere between $300–$400 million. At first, the sale seemed like another cruel dagger flung at the pockmarked corkboard that is the year 2020. But after taking a beat, which is always the optimal way to process any Dylan news, it seems just another step in the infinitely straightforward and circling journey that is Bob Dylan. On a purely clear-eyed practical level, Dylan knows he will not live forever, and were he not to have taken this step, control of this catalog would have been left to his heirs, which I don’t think anyone can imagine as a non-complicated situation. We have relished the thought, I think, that Dylan single-handedly controlled most of his publishing for many years, which seemed another mark of his fierce independence, but of course that sense of independence is simply relative when all is said and done. There is little doubt that this latest move, and all of Dylan’s marketing and licensing forays, have something to do with financial gain, with cold hard cash. But if accumulating wealth were Dylan’s goal, he could have done many other things to accomplish that more effectively. I think these moves have more to do with two aspects of Dylan that also imbue his creative work: his peculiar uniqueness on the one hand, and his everyman ordinariness on the other. And these two qualities are front and center when listening to the Theme Time Radio Hour series, including the recent “Whiskey” episode.

I was struck immediately upon listening to the new broadcast that Dylan’s voice and delivery sound as if he had helped himself to a sampling of the sponsor’s goods during the nearly two-hour broadcast. Dylan’s trademark quirky delivery and behind-the-beat timing are spot on throughout, but his tongue is thick and slurry, at least to my ears. No matter, this episode reaches the high bar set by previous episodes, swirling together an entertaining cocktail of cornball jokes, obscure historical and cultural anecdotes and a terrifically curated song list, with a few obvious choices sprinkled among mostly rare and seldom-heard recordings.

The “Whiskey” episode kicks off with Wynonie Harris singing “Quiet Whiskey.” Later, in one of the episode’s sweetest moments, Dylan “calls up” actor John C. Reilly and asks him to read “Comin’ Through the Rye,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Reilly tells Dylan he’d rather sing the poem, which he proceeds to do. And Reilly’s beautiful voice and interpretation suddenly pierce the “wink-wink” bubble created by Dylan talking to a Hollywood actor. It’s an illustration of the power of music that shows just how, even in this semi-hokey format of an old-timey radio show updated for the modern sensibility, a song well sung can still transcend. After Reilly’s version, Dylan rambles for a bit, and then he spins “Comin’ Thru the Rye” again, this time Julie London’s sultry as-all-get-out version of the song. That construction is one of the joys of the Theme Time Radio Hour series, as the information and the music engage with one’s own experience and prior knowledge and spur a movement toward openness, toward learning something, toward a new way of looking at things. Julie London is a singer who barely registered on my listening radar, but now, after hearing her rendition of “Comin’ Thru the Rye,” I will pay more attention to her work. And a “little birdie” (aka the Internet) told me London was married to both Jack Webb and Bobby Troup, two show-biz men whose careers were tightly linked to Los Angeles, my hometown. So there’s this intensely seasoned stew of interconnected music and facts and stories that make up Theme Time Radio Hour. That concoction elevates the listening experience. What more could one ask?

There’s a didactic quality to much of Dylan’s patter, such as when he explains the meaning of the phrase “pinpoint carbonation,” which refers to an old-time process that uses dry ice to get smaller bubbles into carbonated beverages like soda pop and beer. The process creates a more intimate gas-to-liquid bonding than conventional techniques, and thus the fizzy bubbles are smaller and more effervescent than beverages carbonated in the modern way. It’s one of the magical effects of the Theme Time Radio Hour series that hearing about this arcane bit of industrial technology evokes a feeling similar to that one has upon hearing many Dylan lyrics, a kind of half-recognition/half-puzzlement that always leaves room for exploration, for wandering.

Much credit for the intelligent and seamless weave of the entire Theme Time Radio Hour series, including this “Whiskey” episode, must go to Eddie Gorodetsky, the producer. Gorodetsky is a successful writer and television producer who is also an enthusiastic record collector and musicologist of obscure rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and novelty records. My assumption has always been that records from Gorodetsky’s massive collection form the germ of each episode, and I’ve also assumed someone is writing most of the words Dylan speaks during the broadcast. However, when I encountered Gorodetsky at a social gathering about a year ago, I said to him, “I’m just curious—who is it that comes up with the wild facts and stories on the show?” He looked at me with a slight grin and said, “It’s all Bob.”

When all is said and done the most striking thing about Theme Time Radio Hour is that the entire enterprise smacks so loudly of DYLAN. It’s “Dylanesque.” What does that mean? And how is the approximately 160-pound figure of a man known as Bob Dylan able to infuse so many things: songs, drawings, poems, speeches, photographs, movies, live performances, even radio shows—with this same Dylanesque quality? The answers to those questions won’t be found here, but I’m coining a term, DYLANALCHEMY, to represent the near-mystical process by which Dylan’s work is first created and then transformed into meaning by his audience. Not the most elegant word, to be sure, but it’s my attempt to convey the sense that no amount of analysis or contemplation will ever fully reveal how Dylan’s work does what it does. With Dylan, there’s always the sense that he’s singing to someone, or communicating with someone, usually more than one person. There are great artists who create work mostly for themselves, for their own particular satisfaction—Dylan is not like that. Dylan’s work is always addressed to a listener. Even in those moments where Dylan appears to be almost deliberately antagonizing his audience, he is still singing to someone, possibly just not the expected listener. And this is one of the ways in which the Theme Time Radio Hour series clicks into place amongst the vast array of Dylan’s multi-faceted output.

The Dylan “project” is more than just his songs, of course, but there is sometimes a tendency to see Dylan’s “side projects” as distractions or diversions from the contemplation of Dylan as our representative songsmith. To cop from the name of a bootleg release of The Basement Tapes, Dylan’s work is a “tree with roots.” The most obvious offshoot of Dylan’s songwriting and singing is his protean live performance output—the thousands of times Dylan has stepped in front of an audience to play music. But Dylan’s hundreds of paintings and drawings, his large metal sculptures, his books, his films, his interviews, all of these things also stretch out as branches from the trunk. The Theme Time Radio Hour series represents another deep root extending far into the earth and helping to anchor this majestic oak, now nearly eighty years old.

Bob Dylan. Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series, Volume 15. Sony Music, 2019

REVIEW BY John Hunt & Tim Hunt, Illinois State University

Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series, Volume 15, the latest installment in Sony Music’s series of archival releases of Bob Dylan’s work, compiles outtakes, alternate versions, rehearsals, and informal collaborations related to John Wesley Harding (released December 27, 1967) and Nashville Skyline (released April 9, 1969). Ostensibly, what ties this material and these (stylistically and sonically) different albums together is that they document Dylan’s exploration of country music following his mold-breaking transformation of rock in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and the incendiary 1966 tour of England with The Hawks, all before Dylan’s July 29, 1966 motorcycle accident brought this phase to its close. At the time, those of us who avidly followed Dylan’s work and parsed each new text as if it were our era’s The Waste Land, and we its naive New Critical acolytes, didn’t know that this unprecedented break in Dylan’s productivity had included the informal music making and home recording sessions that have become known as The Basement Tapes (Columbia Records released a double LP selection of this material, selected and post-produced by Robbie Robertson in 1975; in 2014 Columbia/Legacy Records released The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes—Complete). But even if we had had The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding would still have struck us as initiating a new direction for Dylan and we would still not have expected Dylan’s genial smile on the cover of Nashville Skyline. Travelin’ Thru, like earlier installments in the Bootleg Series, invites us not only to recall how Dylan’s various albums and stylistic pivots were originally received but also to reconsider these stylistic pivots and to remap their implications for understanding his career.

In his All-Music Guide entry for John Wesley Harding, Stephen Thomas Erlewine categorizes it as “a quiet, country-tinged album that split dramatically from his previous three,” then adds that the album “isn’t a return” to Dylan’s “folk roots” but rather “his first serious foray into country.” And for Erlewine, Nashville Skyline‘s status as country is even clearer. It is, he declares, “a full-fledged country album.”[1] That both albums were recorded in Nashville with A-List Country Music studio pros, such as Charlie McCoy, clinches the matter of genre and style, and the series of duets with Johnny Cash gathered on Travelin’ Thru ices the cake. The only thing missing is an album cover featuring Dylan posed in a Nudie suit awash with rhinestones and set off with fancy embroidery. Instead, the actual covers evoke different country possibilities: the black & white image used for John Wesley Harding signals country as rural home-made music of the sort we imagine predated commercial recordings in the 1920s, and the color photo on Nashville Skyline of a smiling Dylan holding his guitar up in one hand as he reaches for his hat with the other as if about to say Howdy seems to belong more to the semi-professional traditions of the first decades of the twentieth century that evolved into commercial country, as if a contemporary Jimmy Rodgers had paused to greet the camera. In this regard it is perhaps telling that Dylan planned to use a photo of the Nashville skyline for the cover of Nashville Skyline before deciding instead to use this Elliott Landy image that came from a shoot that was to yield a photo for the back cover. In any case, Dylan’s country was neither the country music of Nashville in 1967 when Buck Owens and Tammy Wynette were riding the charts nor in 1969 when Merle Haggard hit big with “Working Man Blues” and Loretta Lynn was asking “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone).”

The material gathered on Travelin’ Thru makes it possible to consider the differences between the takes chosen for John Wesley Harding and for Nashville Skyline and the alternate takes that were set aside, and these differences help clarify the terms of Dylan’s engagement with country music. Similarly, the series of duets with Johnny Cash, as he and Dylan search for common ground between their distinctive styles, helps clarify Dylan’s relationship to the traditions of country music, as do the four informal recordings that document Dylan’s first meeting with the great bluegrass banjoist Earl Scruggs. As well, Travelin’ Thru provides an occasion for recalling, or at least trying to recall, what it was like to hear these albums when they were first released—a time when the United States was deeply divided by the Vietnam War, and music was still largely divided by politics—the country music of Nashville playing as the soundtrack of those who supported the war and Dylan’s music and rock music more generally playing as the soundtrack of those who opposed it.

In 1967 and 1969, when John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline were first released, rock and country were not just different musical styles; they represented two intensely opposed camps, each tending to demonize the other. Styles and genres were not simply aesthetic practices or performance traditions but social and political symbolism, and having long hair or a crew cut were assumed to be reliable indicators of whether one rolled a joint or knocked back a brew and whether one marched against the war or counter-marched in support of it. (The mock naiveté of The Byrds’ “Drugstore Truck Driving Man” on Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, released a few months before Nashville Skyline, exploits this polarization.) Travelin’ Thru not only provides a context for exploring Dylan’s aesthetic choices in John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline and appreciating the artistry of these albums, the set also provides an occasion for recalling that the term country and using country elements outside the context of mainstream Nashville country music was more fraught than we might credit today and that this may bear on how we understand what might be termed Dylan’s stylistic rhetoric in this period.


John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline As We Heard Them Then:

Over the two-and-a-half years that it took Dylan to release his first four albums, he transformed contemporary folk music from a practice of re-expressing traditional folk material into one of creating new material in the folk idiom (especially material engaging contemporary issues) and then into a mode for highly literate self-expression. In the fourteen months that followed, from March 1965 through May 1966, Dylan similarly recast contemporary rock, over the course of three of his most powerful and influential albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde (a double LP) along with the major single “Positively 4th Street.” While Dylan’s first album wasn’t widely circulated when it appeared, and even though many came to know his work through the recordings of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary (or perhaps more belatedly through The Byrds recasting Dylan’s avant-folk into folk-rock with “Tambourine Man”), from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan forward, Dylan’s own releases were avidly purchased and parsed by what was then termed as youth culture listeners. We hung out on “Desolation Row,” and we mined the lyrics for adages and mantras. We believed we didn’t “need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” and we heard both the license to reject and the challenge to test and understand one’s motives in “if you live outside the law, you must be honest.”

Looking back a half century or so later, the year-and-a-half interval between Blonde on Blonde and the release of John Wesley Harding in December 1967 is a brief pause in Dylan’s productivity, but at the time it seemed much longer than that. The newspapers had reported Dylan’s July 1966 motorcycle accident, but details about the extent of his injuries were not to be had. And in that pre-social media era, rumor ruled; rumor had it his career might be over. The uncertainty of if there’d be a next album replaced the anticipation of when the next album would be out and where it might spin us next. And when John Wesley Harding did come out, it registered more as a reset for Dylan’s career or a kind of taking stock than the advent of a new stylistic direction. The relatively spare arrangements mostly featured Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica backed by Charlie McCoy’s bass and Kenneth Buttrey’s drums playing more subtle patterns than we would likely have noticed even if our less-than-audiophile stereos had reproduced their parts with the presence they deserved. The tempos and the changed quality of Dylan’s voice brought the lyrics to the fore, and the lyrics presented stories with what seemed, but elusively so, an allegorical reach. At the time, we registered the country-ish use of steel guitar on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Down Along the Cove,” but even more we heard the rest of the album as a variation on, a new inflection of, some of Blonde on Blonde with the surreal edge softened and the redeployed symbolic narratives presented in a more acoustic, rural context. If we had heard John Wesley Harding as Dylan’s “first foray into country,” we lacked any real sense of what this might involve stylistically. Just as those who were listening to commercial country music, the music of “Music City, U.S.A.,” weren’t listening to Dylan, we weren’t listening to Buck Owens or George Jones. We weren’t attuned to hear the poetry of Haggard’s “Working Man Blues.”

In any case, in 1967 we heard John Wesley Harding more as a coda to the series of remarkable albums Dylan had produced in the 1960s than as the advent of a new arc of experimentation and development. When Nashville Skyline arrived sixteen months later, what struck us was not only that the country stylistic elements now dominated the album as a whole, but how relatively slight the songs seemed lyrically when compared to the allusive, elusive allegorical work collected on John Wesley Harding. “Lay Lady Lay” was a great number to slip onto the turntable when your girlfriend came by, but it wasn’t “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” and tracks like “Country Pie” were amusing but seemed, for Dylan, like filler. We listened to Nashville Skyline and asked it to be profound (in something akin to the manner that we found John Wesley Harding to be profound), and when we accepted that it wasn’t, we shelved it, turned back to John Wesley Harding and the albums before it, and wondered whether this new Dylan, crooning and genial, would ever take us again to “Positively 4th Street.”

John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline in the Context of Travelin’ Thru:

I first circled around to Dylan’s country period some 30 years after its initial release. Unmoored as I was from the late 60’s, it didn’t seem like that much of a creative detour. It was enjoyable enough, just sort of slight in comparison to what had come before. It didn’t sound like an attempt to breach the walls of the silent majority. Nor did I hear how it might have helped pave the way for the emergence of more left-leaning country writers like Kris Kristofferson. It simply felt like Bob took a deliberate step back and scratched another musical itch. Yet another example of Bob willfully choosing to confound expectations and be, well, Bob.

While Dylan can be called many things, I rarely think of him as subtle. He can be winkingly subversive on occasion, but rarely subtle. The material here, however, both bootlegged and as originally released might be the warmest, gentlest, and yes, subtlest of his career. Aside from his stints with The Band and the Traveling Wilburys, the session with Johnny Cash might also be among his most generous and spontaneous collaborations.

The songs, recorded for John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks, though newly recorded, sound patinaed and slightly outside of their time, with their veneer of crooned pop vocals and understated instrumentation. There is nary a slashing Mike Bloomfield blues guitar riff, penny whistle, or bitingly sardonic vocal to be found. Instead of reaching back to modernize and amplify the singalong protest music and attitudes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, on John Wesley Harding, Dylan pulls out the darker themes of A.P. Carter’s Appalachia, remixing them through his own surrealist folk filter. Lacking high harmony vocals, straight ahead 4/4 drumming, or overtly twangy guitars, these songs are more akin to the acoustic side of Bringing it all Back Home and the quieter moments on Highway 61 Revisited than they are to the country rock of the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Poco, among others. Jimi Hendrix might have been the first to identify the darker rock core of what Dylan was doing with this material, and his amped up cover of “All Along the Watchtower” has become the definitive version. The alt-country and literate rockers who would follow, whether it be the ‘70s Outlaws, early Springsteen, Steve Earle, or later Uncle Tupelo, all eventually drank from the same musical well.

Where John Wesley Harding built on the thematic elements of older country music as its lyrical foundation, musically Nashville Skyline pushes Dylan as close as he would officially get to the sounds of contemporary country. However, if one listens past the light pedal steel adornments and dials down the crooning, Nashville Skyline plays even more aggressively as a return to the folk of his pre-electric albums, particularly tracks in the vein of “It Ain’t Me Babe” from Another Side of Bob Dylan.

The first track of Nashville Skyline, the newly updated “Girl from the North Country,” now a duet with Johnny Cash, is spare and subdued. Really, only the second track on Nashville Skyline, the instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag,” overtly plays up the country aspects of the music, and the song is pushed even more dramatically into the country sphere on the closing track of Travelin’ Thru, where it is performed with Earl Scruggs and Family. However, the rest of side one of Nashville Skyline dials back the country influences. The chugging baseline and sparkling piano heard on the released version of “To Be Alone with You” sound more like shuffling rock accompaniments. The heavily echoed drums on the released version of “I Threw it All Away” have more in common with Hal Blaine’s elevator shaft sound on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (which also features an appearance by Charlie McCoy) than it does with, say, Marty Robbins. Side Two of the original album kicks off with the most hallowed of traditional country rhythmic instrumentation: congas and cowbell.

Though he clearly incorporates country influences and inspiration on Nashville Skyline, Dylan still sits somewhere outside of the genre. The studio chatter between Dylan and Cash on Travelin’ Thru as they try out various songs illustrates this, capturing both their efforts to find a shared musical vocabulary that would enable them to work together and Dylan trying to find a more general footing in the country idiom. Dylan is clearly familiar with both the Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers catalogue, even though he’s less in his vocal element when it comes to the yodels on the Blue Yodels. He sounds particularly out of sorts on the awkward attempt at “Amen” and the gospel tracks that follow after Cash asks him, “Say Bob, what religious song do you know?” It shouldn’t be surprising then, given Dylan’s age and respect for Cash, that the two artists most seamlessly and joyously come together on the Sun Records tracks. The proto-rock of Elvis Presley via Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama,” Carl Perkins’s “Matchbox,” and Cash’s own “Big River” provide some of the best moments on the whole set. Both musicians are seemingly relaxed and right at home in the Sam Phillips wheelhouse. Near the end of “That’s All Right Mama,” Cash asks Dylan, “How far do you want to go?” Dylan wryly retorts, “How far do you want to go?” As Carl Perkins on guitar keeps driving along, Cash laughs and says back, “Let’s do it some more,” leading to them do-do-doing their way through the melody to get to a final shared chorus and a blazing outro from Perkins.

Taken together, all of this might be why I have never really thought of Dylan’s country period as being all that country. However, like other entries in the official Bootleg Series, Travelin’ Thru provides new context to the originally released material and challenges earlier assumptions and narratives. My ears have always heard a somewhat hesitant embrace of modern country sounds on the two officially released albums. However, the outtakes presented from both the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline sessions, particularly the early attempts at “To Be Alone with You” and “I Threw it All Away,” push Dylan into a more overtly contemporary country sound, dialing down the folk while playing up the telecaster twang and adding a little more saloon to the piano. In particular, Travelin’ Thru reveals that Dylan, had he chosen some of the alternate takes for Nashville Skyline and resequenced the album so that it opened with, for instance, “To Be Alone with You,” could have ended up with a record that would have registered more overtly as contemporary country (if not quite countrypolitan). Perhaps this muting of the country style may help explain why Dylan didn’t push himself further down the country road but instead moved quickly onto the next thing: New Morning, then the mishmash of Self Portrait, a reunion with The Band, and finally fully regaining his creative footing with Blood on the Tracks. It would be up to others like Graham Parsons and Gene Clark to realize more fully the country rock sound Dylan hit on in the outtakes on Travelin’ Thru and to explore more fully its expressive possibilities.

Typically an archival compilation such as Travelin’ Thru helps reveal underlying continuities that might not have been apparent, or provides a more comprehensive context that helps us make sense of discontinuities. Instead, Travelin’ Thru brings various questions more clearly into view, underscores their importance, and leaves us less able to wrap the package in pretty paper and put a bow on it. John Wesley Harding has country touches, but the two songs that use steel guitar (“Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”) are its final two tracks and are distinctly different (both stylistically and in their lyric scope) from the preceding ten, non-country songs that dominate the album. We are left to wonder whether the country elements of the first album are in any useful sense to be understood as a precursor to the second or whether the second is a stylistic veer or break from the first. And in either case, we’re left to wonder what country, whether as style or repertoire or marketing label, might have represented to Dylan in this period and in his sense of these two albums.

The four tracks that close Travelin’ Thru offer a clue—or perhaps a complication. These performances with Earl Scruggs and his sons were recorded for possible use for the documentary Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends that aired on public television (then NET, now PBS) on January 10, 1971. In early 1969, Lester Flatt and Scruggs had broken up their long-running and trend-setting bluegrass partnership. Flatt was adamant in his support of the Vietnam War and a staunch traditionalist in his music. Scruggs had come to question the war, and he wanted to play music with his sons. With them he wanted to expand the bluegrass repertoire to include the music of Dylan, among others. The musical divorce was not amicable. The one Dylan-Scruggs collaboration used in the film and included on the soundtrack is “Nashville Skyline,” which easily adapts to bluegrass picking and shows Scruggs as the master he was, but it’s the previously unreleased recordings that are more revealing. The first is “East Virginia Blues,” a traditional song recorded by The Carter Family, a staple of the folk revival scene when Dylan first came to Greenwich Village, and a favorite of first-generation bluegrass acts. The song is folk and it’s country in the sense that bluegrass had been part of the commercial country music scene in the later 1940s and early 1950s. It isn’t, though, country in the contemporary sense of country music at the time when Dylan and Scruggs recorded the piece. Even more telling is their performance of “To Be Alone from You” from Nashville Skyline, where the acoustic instruments rock the beat against Dylan’s blues-inflected delivery of the lyrics, all but erasing its possibility as a country song.

In part, the success of the four brief Dylan-Scruggs collaborations reflects Scruggs’ instrumental virtuosity, his ability to play in a variety of idioms, and probably as well a willingness to suggest material that he believed would most allow Dylan to be Dylan. But there’s perhaps another dynamic in play. For Scruggs, the break with Flatt was a rejection of the current politics of the country music scene and the general sense that country was (when not safely apolitical) the music of the right. Even in the later 1960s, country was already predominately a music addressed to those who felt threatened by the urban mainstream and functioned not just as an assertion of patriotism and the war but also as a defensive construction—an attempt to refuse to be marginalized that can be seen as a precursor of MAGA hats. For Scruggs, to embrace youth music was to refuse this construction and to assert the possibility of a humane and inclusive populism rather than an exclusionary and corrosive one.

And perhaps this parallels Dylan’s interest in drawing on country music in the era covered by Travelin’ Thru. When Dylan recorded John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, to use country music elements in one’s music was a political gesture, whether or not the lyrics were political. In the context of Travelin’ Thru, Dylan’s country phase suggests less an attempt to record country music (and certainly not to be perceived as a country artist) than an attempt to reclaim the country tradition from the political and cultural right: to reassert its possibilities for narrative and reclaim its roots in the folk tradition. This is not the folk tradition of the so-called folk revival typified by the neo-traditionalists or such commercial acts as the Kingston Trio, or even the practice of the young Dylan. Rather, Travelin’ Thru invokes the country music of the 1920s which included Appalachian traditional music, folk blues, and parlor songs, along with the synthesis of these categories. Such innovators as Jimmie Rodgers, for example, spoke to and for rural and small town folk across the southeast, reasserting country as folk and folk as country to create a newly democratic music. If so, John Wesley Harding veers less from The Basement Tapes than it initially seemed, and the ambition of Self Portrait can be seen, in some small way, as deriving from and connected to Nashville Skyline. And if nothing else, Travelin’ Thru underscores that country—whether understood as genre, as repertoire, as musical practice—is a problematic descriptor for Dylan’s music in this period. Coming to terms with this phase of Dylan’s creative output requires treating the term country as a central problematic rather than a reliable interpretive key.


[1] Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding,” AllMusic, n.d.,; and Erlewine, “Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline,” AllMusic, n.d.,

Bob Dylan. Rough and Rowdy Ways. Columbia Records, 2020

REVIEW BY Charles O. Hartman, Connecticut College

Containing History

The cover art on Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways shows couples dressed in sharp 50s style dancing nearly in the dark, but illuminated by Lost Ark beams from a jukebox, over which a lone man leans. Perhaps the record player offers Jimmie Rodgers’s “My Rough and Rowdy Ways,” perhaps also Waylon Jennings’s “My Rough and Rowdy Days.” The lone man is surely Dylan, our jukebox of American music, and the magic chest surely contains all the many dozen recordings alluded to in the album’s lyrics. An NPR review of “Murder Most Foul”—the long single released on March 27, three months before the album—lists 74 references, and more are strewn through the whole album. Dylan has always said that songs, in particular American folk songs (very broadly defined), constitute his path to truth. In a 1997 interview: “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. … Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’—that’s my religion.”[1]

Unsurprisingly—it is the first collection of songs written and recorded by Bob Dylan in eight years (since, among things, his Nobel Prize in Literature)—Rough and Rowdy Ways received well over a dozen reviews before it was released on June 19, including two with identical subtitles, “arguably his grandest poetic statement yet.” Many reviewers dwelt on the lyrics’ allusiveness, which began to be an issue for Dylan’s fans and critics around the time of “Love and Theft” (2001), when he was discovered to have lifted some lines from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. (Saga declared himself flattered.) The fact that he had frankly taken that album’s title—the quotation marks are meant—from Eric Lott’s critical book on minstrelsy (1993) should have deepened and clarified the question, but controversy continued at least through Modern Times (2006), with its extensive borrowings from Ovid’s Black Sea Letters (Peter Green’s translation) and the poems of Henry Timrod. Though the Nobel may have removed the racy thrill from debates about “the folk tradition,” appropriation, and so on, it’s still a tempting sensation to drag out for a review. In fact, we know perfectly well how to tell homage from plagiarism: if the writer wants us not to recognize the source, it’s cheating. If, instead, Dylan means us to hear the original through his re-contextualization, the echo always signifies something: at least a tribute that he may hope will lead us back to the source (Saga’s sales soared), and perhaps a transformation of the transplanted material.

This distinction is simple enough, but applying it can get complicated. It depends on how probable the author’s guess is about the audience’s knowledge. As anyone who has taught college in recent decades has seen, the cultural continuities that made such guesses reliable a century ago have so expanded, contracted, and shifted that classroom synapses misfire all the time. From Dylan’s point of view, the real problem is our ignorance of the American heritage of song. To him, Memphis Minnie’s “Chauffeur Blues” (from which he or his band took the riff between stanzas on “Obviously Five Believers” on Blonde on Blonde back in 1966), and Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believing” (1954), of which “False Prophet” on the new album is a thorough contrafactum,[2] are both staples, no more obscure than George Herbert’s “Prayer (II)” or the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps not many people recognized the musical provenance of “False Prophet” when it was released as a third single; but within minutes the awareness permeated the Internet, the Overmind that would make any attempt by Dylan to hide his sources absurd.

Mesmerized for half a century by Dylan’s words, we might half-forget that Rough and Rowdy Ways is, after all, or before all, an album of music. To talk about its effects and achievements entails, among other things, talking about the band that Dylan is fronting—largely his touring band of recent years. In turn, in order to talk precisely about Dylan’s band, it is worth beginning with the lyric and harmonic structure of the third track, “My Own Version of You.” It’s a knowingly odd song, at once B-movie ghoulish, ardent, and hilarious. Its title sounds almost like a parodic answer to denunciations of Dylan’s songs on the ground that his protagonist is always trying to remake his female addressee into someone more suitable to his tastes—“someone who feels the way that I feel.” (Songs like “Sweetheart Like You” seem to support this position. A counterargument begins from “All I Really Want to Do” and the adoption of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” as the title of the first feminist collective of cartoonists in 1970.) In the new song, he proposes to assemble a living being from spare parts, a spoof on Frankenstein, but also an echo of the dismemberment of Osiris and his resurrection by his wife, (wait for it!) Isis[3].

The camp luridness of the lyrics is highlighted by the musical background. It begins with a riff that will continue throughout, with variations. A minor chord (C#m), sustained by pedal steel guitar, is embellished by an almost equally sustained electric guitar’s descending sequence of “color tones”: minor seventh, sixth, flat sixth. This chromatic series, warping the basically diatonic regime of folk and rock music, establishes the song’s creepy vibe. (Pedal steel always has a banshee quality.) After a four-bar A-strain on this pattern, repeated, we get—as we would expect in the AABA structures alluded to frequently on Dylan albums since Highway 61 Revisited[4]—a B-strain that largely replicates the A-strain pattern, but in the subdominant, F# minor (with some harmonically clever alterations). The C# minor A-strain then reappears, but the color-tone overlay has changed: the top notes now are major 7th, minor 7th, 6th. Neither of these sequences, the A-strain nor this altered A strain, would be very surprising in jazz (and Dylan reuses the A’ progression in the bridges of “I Contain Multitudes”), but setting the two next to each other is unusual and intrigues the ear. In the song’s first stanza, this AABA’ is followed by a contrasting C-strain that insists on a suspenseful A7 for seven bars, before returning to C#m with its original overlay of color tones.

So far, this is a chord structure only a bit more complex than was typical of Dylan’s songs before his long venture into the jazz-and-show-tunes Great American Songbook associated with Frank Sinatra (Shadows in the Night [2015], Fallen Angels [2016], and Triplicate [2017]). But “My Own Version of You” adds another, characteristically expansive layer to the AABA structure native to that repertoire. The pattern described above fits the first two of the song’s eight stanzas, and also its sixth and seventh; but the third, fourth, and fifth are half again as long, and the final stanza is more than three times as long as the first or second. To put it in terms of the lyrics, stanzas comprise 3, 3, 5, 5, 5, 3, 3, and 11 couplets. The song’s variation from stanza to stanza is rule-governed, but the rules are not elementary: every stanza’s chord structure is AABA times x, followed by C, where x = 1, 2, or 5, and the last A before the C-strain is always A’.

This is all gratifying to form-conscious fans (post-New Critical literary analysts or aspiring singer-songwriters). But it also makes a difference to our sense, as listeners, of Dylan-and-his-band as a performing unit. It turns out that this array of rules can be realized only by a set of musicians who know whether the section they are presently playing is a last (AABA’) or a preceding (AABA) section of the stanza. What to play now depends on what we will play several seconds from now. The sonic evidence is clear that everyone contributing to the released recording knew exactly where he was in the song. It’s conceivable that Dylan (or some assistant, like Al Kooper in preparation for Blonde on Blonde) could have written out, if not a score, at least a diagram or road-map, or that Dylan and his musicians could have rehearsed the whole song often enough for everyone to memorize the asymmetrical pattern. How does this band really work?

A clue comes from “Murder Most Foul.” The chord pattern behind that essentially spoken lyric is a simple C F C F G F, but the matching of chords with words varies; some lines correspond to two chords, some to one, some in between. It seems clear that Dylan is conducting the music, in the studio, in the same way he has always done: first, he hires excellent musicians, and then, as Eric Clapton is quoted as saying in the liner notes to Biograph, “When you rehearse with Dylan . . . you listen hard and watch his hands for the changes. It may be your only take.” Earlier in the career we can hear occasional instances of this coordination faltering, because (as Clapton implies) Dylan disliked both rehearsing and a finished studio sound, preferring rough performance. But whatever the details—as far as I know no one in the band has revealed anything in print—the system was in place during the recording of “My Own Version of You.”

The same is true of “Black Rider,” two tracks later. This song uses a fairly conventional downward-stepping progression in D minor (simpler than the chromatic variations in “My Own Version of You,” and familiar from as far back as “Ballad of a Thin Man”). But the five stanzas of “Black Rider” display at least three distinct variations, and though they are all plausible, there is no obvious way to predict which stanza will select which version. The musicians need to coordinate not only with Dylan but with each other. Even in the apparently straightforward blues, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” each verse ends with an unusual bar of 5/4. Whatever studio direction there was, what was required was superlative mutual listening. On “I Contain Multitudes,” the album’s opening track, we can hear the band following Dylan’s rubato (rhythmically loose) delivery at the beginning; shifting into tempo at each of the two bridges and back to rubato for the next verse; and in the last A-strain stanza (“Pink pedal-pushers . . . ”) building back up to the beat again.

In short, in the ways that musically matter most, this band is great—possibly, for his unique purposes, Dylan’s best ever. When Charlie Sexton joined Dylan on “Love and Theft” and then, after some years, rejoined permanently in 2013, he took over a chair (to put it in symphonic terms) that had been held by Mike Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, and Mark Knofpler, all among the outstanding players of their generation. Yet Sexton may be, if not the greatest soloist among them, Dylan’s finest accompanist. His first, floating notes on “Key West” are perfect. More important, since this is a band, is his coordination with Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar to create the seamless riff behind “My Own Version of You.” Sexton’s guitar more obviously drives the blues-riff tunes: “False Prophet,” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” and “Crossing the Rubicon.”

Herron, a multi-instrumentalist, joined Dylan on Modern Times (2006) and stayed on through Together Through Life (2009) and Tempest (2012, Dylan’s last album of original songs until now). Dylan retained him, unlike most other band players, for the three more orchestral albums that scrutinize the oeuvre of Frank Sinatra. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Herron’s accordion is the signature sound on “Key West,” establishing the sea-shanty that the song so provocatively melds with a celebration of pirate radio, though the stations he names were land-based. (Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour was its own piratical testimonial.) Herron also contributes important violin and mandolin parts on several tracks, particularly the songs that are given something close to a bare string-band treatment, more or less novel in Dylan’s work: “I Contain Multitudes,” “Black Rider,” “Mother of Muses,” and “Murder Most Foul.”

The acoustic and electric bassist, Tony Garnier, has been with Dylan the longest, since the 1989 tour. He is the pillar supporting Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft”Modern TimesTogether Through Life, and Tempest, as well as the Sinatra albums. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, his bowed acoustic bass links the beginnings of “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul,” the opening and closing songs, as well as “Mother of Muses”; it is a gorgeous sound, and we bask. (Those bookend songs are both in C major; in between—whatever other considerations went into sequencing the album—the key signatures are neatly arranged: C major, C minor, C# minor, D blues major, D minor, A blues major, A major, G blues major, and C major twice.)

Matt Chamberlain, the newest musician in Dylan’s band (he joined in 2019), is a supremely flexible studio drummer who has recorded and toured with an array of musicians from Brad Mehldau to Kanye West. His rock-blues drumming on the up-tempo songs is impeccable, but less surprising than the dignified, quasi-march feel that he gives to “Key West” and his propulsive brushwork on “My Own Version of You” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind.” Still more unexpected on a Dylan album is Chamberlain’s atmospheric play with mallets on “Murder Most Foul,” not starting until two minutes into the song—a sign that his contribution is not confined to the expected role of a drummer. He is almost absent from “Mother of Muses,” but he punctuates the song here and there with a very quiet double-tap on bass drum (“Just so!”). At first he seems to sit out “Black Rider” entirely, but occasionally (at 0:50, 1:35, 2:21, 3:06, and 3:50) he inserts a discreet rim-shot. (It sounds almost as though someone dropped something in the studio—unthinkable on this album, which is not the party of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”) Presumably Dylan asked Chamberlain to mark these points of articulation—always between stanzas—in the song’s fevered drama.

In its recordings during the present decade, Dylan’s band has taken on an increasingly refined sound. (Even the backing vocals lend the new album a pacific tone. On “I’ve Made Up My Mind,” a mellow chorus of three or four male voices quietly sketches the harmonized melody. It sounds like Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water.” On “Key West” the chorus comes in almost subliminally, and late, at about 3:25.) This vehicle is not Steely Dan, certainly not Mantovani, but it is a sufficiently luxurious limo to convey Dylan’s rough and rowdy voice. He delivers the lyric of “Murder Most Foul” in a near-monotone, like a spoken-word performance. But his voice is—pace all the decades of jokes about his singing—often quite beautiful, as on “Mother of Muses” and “Key West,” and almost always highly expressive in ways that owe much to the years of Sinatra Studies. One example is his suave, supple timing on “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” (Its lines vary between seven and fifteen syllables.) In an almost infinitely hesitant line like “No one ever told me, it’s just something I knew,” he not only pauses in the middle but lets his voice slide mournfully down in pitch, and then waits several slow beats to resume the words.

Dylan has always been an enthusiastic, vitriolic singer of blues. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” a tribute to the great bluesman (1926-76), is also, through his delivery, a commentary on blues conventions. Near the end of a stanza, just where the beat breaks and the guitar riff takes over, there is a moment’s gap into which it is traditional to insert a zinger. (In the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Blood in My Eyes”—which Dylan transformed on World Gone Wrong (1993) and in a memorable video, and which he alludes to in “Murder Most Foul”—they sing: “It ain’t no need a-gettin roustin yo jaws / You ain’t gonna get none of my Santa Claus.”) But here, though “I can’t play the record cause my needle got stuck” has the tone of a double entendre, it’s hard to make much of the phallic implications of “my needle.” And inserting a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer is goofily blasphemous—a confirmation of all those bad things they say about Saturday night on Sunday morning. On the other hand, his penultimate verse feels classic:

Transparent woman in a transparent dress

Suits you well, I must confess

I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out that juice

I need you like my head needs a noose

Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, goodbye and so long

I thought I could resist her but I was so wrong

Dylan’s timing in the last line is devious and droll. Trying to notate its rhythm would be an advanced musicological exercise.

If “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” honors and muses over a whole genre (or multi-genre) of songs, other tracks enact more specific tributes. The debt of “False Prophet” to “If Lovin’ Is Believing” has already been noted (here and by other reviewers). It is a purely musical debt, not a verbal one. In a 2004 interview (Robert Hillburn, LA Times) Dylan described this process with simple exactitude:

I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, for instance, in my head constantly—while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.

A more peculiar and complex musical rehabitation takes place in “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” First, its general sound recalls two of Dylan’s own earlier songs: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (Blonde on Blonde, 1966) and “When the Deal Goes Down” (Modern Times, 2006) are both stately waltzes led by brushwork on snare and cymbals. If the former is a famously personal hymn to Dylan’s soon-to-be wife, the latter is an elaborate reworking of Bing Crosby’s “When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,” with lines equally famously lifted from Henry Timrod. Especially in the vicinity of the Timrod lines, “When the Deal Goes Down” has moments vertiginously close to the edge of the maudlin—and of cliché as well. If I quote David Byrne’s maxim that “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily,” it is not to be snide, but to acknowledge the doubleness of our listening experience. As an artist in a binary medium, Dylan occasionally pulls our attention away from the lyrics that make “Visions of Johanna” and “Tangled Up in Blue” monumental or novelistic, and toward the music that, after all, makes them songs. Breaking the dyad, Dylan shows us how it is put together; music and words long for each other, sometimes in vain.

Even so, lines stand out: “My heart is like a river – a river that sings” is poetry that, as Wallace Stevens stipulated, escapes the intelligence almost successfully. The first clause steps boldly from heart to river (recalling the blood’s stream, Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” and the red “Rubicon” later on the album); the following phrase leaps from river back to voice. The irrationality of both moves underscores the metaphor into which they bind.

So far I have ignored a point about “I’ve Made Up My Mind” that many listeners will recognize immediately, that Dylan’s melody and harmonic structure are taken directly from the “Barcarolle” in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. The Wikipedia entry on “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour,” the aria with the famous melody, remarks that the musicologist “Carl Dahlhaus cites the piece as an example of the duplicity of musical banality: in the period of Wagner, when serious opera was marked by chromaticism, Offenbach used the Barcarolle’s very consonance to give a sinister feel to the act throughout which it recurs.” This helps make sense of the tone of Dylan’s choice of musical armature. In the twentieth century, the tune became a staple of “light music” like that of Mantovani, who began to release recordings in 1949, when Dylan was eight. Dylan will have heard the Barcarolle on the radio, repeatedly. Given the musical tastes he was no doubt already developing, he will have identified it as fluff, as cliché, though this doesn’t rule out its being nostalgic for him.

Yet Dylan also transforms the tune. For one thing, as already noted, the timing of his vocal delivery presses so hard on the structure of the melody as to deconstruct, if not Offenbach’s intent, then what has been made of it since. For another, he adds a bridge (three times, the last time including the heart-and-river lines) that shifts into the relative minor to give the song’s lilt a tempered edge.[5]

Rough and Rowdy Ways is as broad a study of song forms as any of Dylan’s albums since Blonde on Blonde. Though I have concentrated on musical examples, a lyric like that of “Key West” relies on Dylan’s long fascination with rhyme, refrain, and related structures. As often—“Desolation Row” is one example—the song’s title, repeated at key points, governs and requires a whole array of rhyming words. The A-strain stanzas (supported by a tripartite harmonic structure, with two chords per lyric line) rhyme as aab, ccB, ddb, eeB, where B is a line that ends with the title. So, though the “a” rhymes differ from stanza to stanza, every “b” rhyme in the song is more or less the same; aside from the ten line-final repetitions of “Key West,” he finds ten more rhymes on “-est” (or “-ess”), including the marvelous “overdressed.” The four bridges (B-strains) likewise, but separately, rhyme aabccb—like, incidentally, the stanzas (but not the bridges) of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”; it’s a usefully varied but unified, stray-and-come-back form. Whatever other kinds of labor a song may be doing, Dylan often reminds us that working out these patterns is serious fun. (Amid the sprawl of “Murder Most Foul,” he takes a moment to group, by phonetics as well as era, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Bugsy Siegel, and Pretty Boy Floyd.) “Crossing the Rubicon” uses its title in a similar way, letting us guess repeatedly what rhyme-word will anticipate the return of the rich name “Rubicon.”

Those who heard “Murder Most Foul” on its single release on March 27—and then “I Contain Multitudes” when it was added on April 17, and then on June 19 the whole collection, of which those singles became the last and first songs—had one experience of Dylan’s newest album; while those who listen through Rough and Rowdy Ways all new, in order (culminating in the two longest songs), will have different experiences and views of the whole. Either order, though, can hardly avoid centering our attention on “Murder Most Foul”; it is no misfortune that Dylan’s most eager listeners have had the most time to react to that song, and perhaps no accident either.

But the album’s dedicatory song is not the one about JFK, but “Mother of Muses,” whose ponderous beat and modal harmony give it the sound of a Celtic dirge. The mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne, that is, Memory. Some reviewers read the album as a kind of pre-farewell, and latch onto this song’s line, “I’ve already outlived my life by far”; but this is, Biblically speaking, a simple fact: Dylan passed “threescore years and ten” nearly a decade ago. It is not clear either that he regrets having come so far, or that he “feels his age” in the way people usually mean that phrase. Addressing this Mother, Dylan asserts his love for—and asks for—her daughter Calliope (“the beautiful-voiced”), who is the Muse of epic poetry. This may anticipate, at least on our second time through, the length of “Murder Most Foul.” (It outlasts even “Highlands,” from Time Out of Mind. The lyrics rhyme in 82 couplets, 164 lines, delivered at about 10 per minute, so that on average a line takes up about six seconds—a long time.)

The notion of epic resonates with the album’s emphasis on naming: “If you want to remember, better write down the names.” Sometimes they’re place names (the streets of Dallas and Key West, as well as the America-spanning “Salt Lake City to Birmingham / From East L.A. to San Anton’,” again recalling “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” as well as “She’s Your Lover Now” and many other songs)—as if this were the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships. More often, they are the names of people: Jimmy Reed, Marx and Freud, Liberace, Anne Frank and Indiana Jones, and dozens more, some fictional, most not. Aside from Mona (a refugee from “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”), a large majority of the people named are nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures prominent in cultural, political, or often military history, mostly American. The album, expansive as it is, feels acutely specific.

This may remind us that Ezra Pound’s definition of “epic” was “a poem containing history.”[6] Dylan’s line in “False Prophet,” “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in” sounds not ecstatic, but aghast. Whitman meant “I contain multitudes” as generosity, but an album that imagines assembling a beloved out of body parts makes the declaration more sinister. (One could contain multitudes by eating them, as history does.) Rough and Rowdy Ways is internalized history, and that inner arena is troubled, every outcome contested.

Personhood, too, is baffled.[7] In the song that takes Whitman’s title, the “greedy old wolf” and the woman addressed as “madame” are unidentified and otherwise unanchored in any scene we might construct. The “lusty old mule” addressed in the ninth stanza of “False Prophet” can hardly be the “darlin’” of the following stanza, who plays antimatter to the singer’s matter: “When your smile meets my smile, something’s got to give.” If the you of these songs is unstable, the I is multiple: everyone, no one; unique, and all of us. In the sweep and welter of Dylan’s historical vision, boundaries among persons become fluid; causes, roles, and responsibilities overlap and collide. How did generals like Sherman and Patton (and Zhukov, a surprise Russian) create “paths” for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King (in successive lines)? If—to suggest one tenuous reading—America had to defeat Confederates and Nazis to produce the postwar society that would shape Dylan, how does (perhaps General Winfield) Scott fit into that narrative?

On Rough and Rowdy Ways, history is history in the endless, uncomfortable state of being digested, while it digests us. This has something to do with why reviewers seem equally likely to call the album “timeless” or “timely.” (Anne Margaret Daniel on Hotpress calls it “a record we need right now.”) As the breadth of Dylan’s references to song history and world history insists—“way back before England or America were made”—it was not only in November 1963 that “the soul of a nation has been torn away.”

In “Murder Most Foul,” it is not “he” who killed JFK—“Oswald and Ruby” are an incidental pair in the second stanza—but “they.” That was the crucial pronoun of Dylan’s astonishing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964). Now we know to wonder, if “they” is meant to generalize the responsibility, why it isn’t “we.” Through conundrums like these the album asks: Should we see ourselves as the victims of our times, or the perpetrators of them?


[1] David Gates, “Dylan Revisited,” Newsweek, October 5, 1997.

[2] Hartman, “Contrafactum: The Career of a Song,” Yale Review, 2007.

[3] An early essay by Ezra Pound on his poetics is called “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris” (1911).

[4] Hartman, “Dylan’s Bridges,” New Literary History, 2015.

[5] Why is Rough and Rowdy Ways fascinated by edged weapons? We get knife or knives in “I Contain Multitudes,” “My Own Version of You,” and “Crossing the Rubicon,” and sword(s) in “False Prophet” and “Black Rider.” “Black Rider” and “Crossing the Rubicon” are (in part) boast/threat songs, recognizable from a blues tradition that includes Robert Johnson, though it long precedes him. Dylan has experimented with this mode before; “Pay in Blood,” perhaps the strongest song on Tempest, is a good example; “Ain’t Talkin’ [Modern Times] generalizes the attitude without losing the asperity. As “False Prophet” avows, “I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”

[6] Pound, “Date Line,” 1934, in Literary Essays.

[7] Hartman, “Dylan’s Deixis” in Polyvocal Dylan, ed. Nduka Otonio and Josh Toth, Palgrave, 2019.