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.

Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019)

REVIEW BY William Luhr, Saint Peter’s University



Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019) celebrates the Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour of 1975-76. It centers on performance and backstage footage, featuring Dylan and other participants, including Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The film situates the tour within a cultural/historical context, referencing nationally resonant touchstones of the mid-1970s such as the American Bicentennial, the resignation in disgrace of President Richard M. Nixon, the end of the Vietnam War, the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by a member of the notorious Manson family, and the popularity as well as political influence of the American evangelist, Billy Graham. Echoing this complex temporal interface, the film presents a prophetic image of the iconic Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. At the time of the tour, the buildings had recently (in 1973) been completed with great fanfare; but prior to the making of this film, they had been obliterated in a 2001 terrorist attack and their image has subsequently become associated with dark threats to America. While invoking diverse perspectives upon the American Dream, the film celebrates the vitality of a musical community and of small town American life. Dylan drives the bus.

Mixing archival footage and interviews from the tour itself (including outtakes from Dylan’s 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara), footage shot forty years later for this film, and footage gathered from the intervening decades, the movie presents Dylan’s ragtag group as the counter-culture at its most vital. With Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the soundtrack registering a yearning to follow a charismatic musician (“Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me / In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you / Take me on a trip . . .”), the group radiates a sense of carefree troubadours embracing the romance of the open road. Yet not all participants are musicians. The poet Allen Ginsberg declares that they started out on the tour trying to discover America but ended up discovering themselves. Described in the film’s credits as “The Oracle of Delphi,” he evokes the memory of the then (1969) recently deceased Jack Kerouac, most famous for his 1957 novel On the Road, which celebrates road travel as a way of discovering not only one’s self but also America. Kerouac’s book, which includes characters based on himself as well as Ginsberg and other Beat Generation figures, became something of a Bible for the counter-culture, and in the film we see Dylan and Ginsberg reverentially visit Kerouac’s grave. The playwright and screenwriter Sam Shepard, whose works explore mythic resonances of the American West, discusses his involvement, as does singer/actress Ronee Blakley who describes how Ginsberg and fellow poet, Peter Orlovsky, gradually became so marginalized during the tour that they were relegated to little more than baggage handlers. Sharon Stone also describes her experiences on the tour.

Sharon Stone?

The movie appeared in 2019 when a number of events coalesced around Dylan’s public image, including:

  • The release of a 14-CD box set of material from the tour as well as the November 2019 release of the three-CD package, Bob Dylan (Featuring Johnny Cash) — Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15.

  • The October 2016 announcement of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dylan, which became a complicated event that outraged some when Dylan, citing his touring schedule, announced that he would not appear at the awards ceremony, although he did accept the award at a private ceremony in April 2017 and, that June, posted his Nobel Lecture in order to qualify for the $900,000 stipend.

  • The opening of the Bob Dylan exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in conjunction with a symposium on Dylan’s work, along with the official Bob Dylan Archive at the University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research at the Gilcrease Museum.

  • The August 2019 death of the prestigious documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, whose obituaries noted his influential 1967 Don’t Look Back, which chronicled Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.

  • The high-profile announcement of the 2020 Broadway premiere of the musical, Girl from the North Country, written and directed by the award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson and featuring Dylan’s music.

  • The announcement that Dylan’s 2019 tour would conclude with a ten-night run at New York City’s Beacon Theater, making it his longest stand at a New York venue since 1962 when he played at folk clubs like Gerde’s Folk City for weeks at a time.

The movie toggles between tour footage and more recent commentary. While doing so, the film often reconceptualizes the nature and significance of the decades-old events, broaching the question of what continuity might exist between the two eras. Both Dylan and Scorsese, in their distinctive and inventive ways, interrogate the meaning of America. The film pursues this interrogation while engaging some avant-garde and transgressive recent trends in narration, representation, and genre.


Martin Scorsese is a prolific and innovative American filmmaker who, in addition to his widely respected feature films, has long been involved with music documentaries, going back to his work as an editor on Woodstock (1970). He has also made movies with and about Dylan: The Last Waltz (1978) which chronicles The Band’s final concert and includes Dylan, and the 2005 American Masters TV documentary, No Direction Home, about Dylan’s development between 1961 and 1966.

Scorsese is best known for his gritty, violent features dealing with twentieth-century urban, criminal American life. They include Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). His Gangs of New York (2002) depicts nineteenth-century national and ethnic conflicts that underpin the development of modern Manhattan. But his output is extensive and diverse. He explored an independent woman’s struggle in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974); he made New York, New York (1977) about post World War II musicians, Raging Bull (1980) which is a biopic about the boxer Jake LaMotta, and grimly comic films like The King of Comedy (1982) and After Hours (1985). Some of his movies have courted dialogue with earlier films and filmmakers, such as The Hustler sequel, The Color of Money (1986); a remake of Cape Fear (1991); and his Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). He has made films engaging religious topics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), and Silence (2010). When some critics expressed surprise at the gentility of his The Age of Innocence (1993), a nuanced study of the privileged classes in Gilded Age America, Scorsese responded that he did not see it as a deviation at all, that he considered all of his films to be studies of manners among social groups, whether about violent conflicts among Italian American gangsters or the behaviors of the moneyed elite of the late nineteenth century. He has also devoted considerable energy to film preservation projects.

Scorsese’s projects often challenge normative practices of the film industry. In Shutter Island (2010), the protagonist, Teddy Daniels, is a United States Marshall hunting a demented killer. Daniels’ search leads him to Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Ultimately, he turns out to be the demented killer that he has been ostensibly hunting, destabilizing the reliability of his narrative perspective. At the end, Daniels appears to cooperate with his own imminent lobotomization, in effect erasing the very source of the film’s narration.

The 2019 releases of both Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and The Irishman represent similar subversions of film genre. The Irishman generated considerable controversy even before its release, since it was largely financed by Netflix and runs three hours and 29 minutes long, generally considered an unmarketable length for a feature film. Although it was featured at the prestigious New York Film Festival and received largely rave reviews, it created a battle within the industry at a time when the very nature of film is undergoing fundamental change. Most movies are no longer shot and distributed on film but by means of digital technologies. Powerful streaming services like Netflix, which has also entered production, are challenging traditional studios and distribution outlets and often winning those battles. As a way of ensuring revenue, theater owners have traditionally demanded a roughly three-month window between a film’s theatrical opening and its airing on television, cable, or streaming services, after which the theatrical revenues have generally declined precipitously. The Irishman had a window of less than a month. Furthermore, much of that film is told in flashback and, like Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, it challenges the reliability of memory.

From the outset, Scorsese establishes Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story as more than simply a documentary record of a concert tour but as a film with its own cinematic integrity. Even though it was honored with the 2019 Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement Award by DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, the movie never describes itself as a documentary. Scorsese opens by invoking the origins of cinema itself, showing scenes from Georges Melies’s 1896 The Vanishing Lady. That film concerns magic and illusion, which was the focus of much of Melies’s work with the then-new medium. (In fact, Melies appears as a major character played by Ben Kingsley in Scorsese’s 2011 3-D feature, Hugo). But what does a nineteenth-century trick film showcasing cinema’s ability to deceive and dazzle the spectator with illusions have to do with a twenty-first Century film about a concert tour?


Although at first Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story seems to present itself as an entertaining depiction of the tour, some things don’t add up. Since one target audience for this film is Dylan fans and obsessives, and since information about the Rolling Thunder Revue has been available to them for decades, they are likely to come to this movie expecting a fuller, more polished record of the tour than previously available. But from the outset, they are likely to notice inconsistencies in the film’s timeline. For instance, Sharon Stone nostalgically describes her experiences as a 19-year old-invited to join the tour, and particularly her jubilation when Dylan tells her that he wrote a song about her. Later, however, the musician T Bone Burnett informs her that she could not have been the inspiration for the song, since it was a decade old at the time. A cute story about a young woman’s naivete, when in reality, Stone was 17 and not 19 at the time, and there is no record that she was ever on the tour at all. Her amusing recollections are entirely and demonstrably fabricated—in what appears to be a documentary! Fabrications within fabrications. Why did Scorsese include this whimsical material in his celebration of the tour? Why did he expend the effort to create, script, and film it for this project?

More central to the narration are interviews with “Stefan von Dorp,” the filmmaker presented as responsible for much of the tour footage. But no such person ever existed—he is entirely invented, and played onscreen by Martin von Haselberg, a performance artist married to Bette Midler.

Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures, describes his challenges in promoting the tour, but Gianopulos never promoted the tour at all. He was in law school at the time.

Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner recounts how President Jimmy Carter got him into a performance of the Rolling Thunder Revue. But Tanner never existed and the event never happened. He is a fictional character played by the actor Michael Murphy, who appeared as Tanner in Robert Altman’s 1988 television campaign mockumentary, Tanner ’88, written by Garry Trudeau.

The fabrications are so numerous that in the very month of the film’s release, on June 12, 2019, Andy Green published an article enumerating many of them in Rolling Stone entitled, “A Guide to What’s Fake in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.”

What is happening here?

Traditional notions of documentary posit a genre that strives for an accurate, unmediated recording and recounting of the film’s topic, be it the life of an individual, the significance of an event, the historical plight of a people, or the development of a socio-cultural moment. At least from the 1920s on, the genre has often been associated with political activism and with the presentation of evidence documenting real-world injustice and arguments for social change. However, many contrasting schools of documentary filmmaking have emerged, often with different ideological stances involving the integrity of the image, the soundtrack, the narration, and the authorial presence or absence of the filmmaker. Some documentarians reject voice-over narration as intervening with the “truth” of the depicted events; comparably, many consider recreations of events to be betrayals of an implicit promise of unmediated “truth.” Furthermore, the very nature of the documentary has recently undergone widespread and extensive reformulation, particularly with the advent of digital technologies, and many works currently presenting themselves as documentaries bear little relation to past iterations of the genre.

Presumptions about venues have also changed. Traditionally, documentaries were shown in theaters or in auditoriums. After World War II, television became a major new venue. Currently, much of the energy in the field has shifted to art museums and various video installations, and these new venues have brought with them fundamental changes in narrational practices. Where many traditional documentaries presented closed narratives—a beginning, an end, a clearly focused argument—more recently many have presented open-ended, ongoing, multi-perspectives on their topics. Some of these films seek to immerse the spectator in a new kind of documentary experience, which can be “live” and constantly changing, as with live video feeds simultaneously showing war-torn areas. Those feeds depict what is happening at the very moment that the spectator is observing them and present a constantly changing NOW. Some manifest as “walk through” installations and, rather than presenting a fixed narrational experience, presume a mobile spectator who can focus on whatever they find compelling. Hence the same spectator can experience the “same” documentary presenting different data on successive days.

This disengagement from long-held notions of fixed narration also relates to current practices challenging traditional presumptions about the integrity of the cinematic image—about what we can believe about what we see. Traditional codes of representation are shifting, not only in the documentary genre, but also in fictional films. Dramatic examples appear in recent films by Quentin Tarantino such as Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019). Each is set in an identifiable historical time and place—the first in World War II Europe and the second in 1960s Los Angeles. It is nothing new to set films in past eras and present a mix of historical and fictional characters, but the convention has largely been to stick with what popular audiences know about history. In Inglorious Basterds, however, Tarantino depicts the slaughter of Adolf Hitler and his staff in a French movie theater a year before Hitler’s actual death in Germany. In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the infamous Manson family prepares to murder Sharon Tate and friends but, contrary to the historical record, the murder is averted.

These more recent examples differ from the common practice of altering character structure or the sequence of events in films engaging historical figures. John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) deals with Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight. Ford knew the historical Earp but his depiction of the fight differs wildly from the historical record. The actual fight lasted roughly half a minute but in Ford’s film it goes on for fifteen. Doc Holliday is killed although the historical character survived. When Ford made the film, those events had occurred in a previous century and were not well known. He tailored them to his notion for the film. But the Tarantino films engage widely known, relatively recent events. Most audience members are likely to see that something is off.

In Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese utilizes these new trends in filmmaking, and those trends pair well with many of the narrative strategies Dylan has employed throughout his career. Among these strategies is Dylan’s history of attracting and even encouraging diverse and contradictory perspectives about himself. Dylan speaks of the importance of masks in the interview portion of the film, saying, “We didn’t have enough masks on that tour. . . . When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.” On the tour, when not wearing a mask, Dylan generally performed in whiteface. In the film, Joan Baez recounts how she once dressed in whiteface to imitate him, and no surprise, the film goes to lengths to suggest Dylan borrowed the idea from the rock band Kiss, who had yet to even adopt that practice at the time. Even before 1962, when he legally changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, Dylan had used numerous pseudonyms while performing and recording, and has continued to do so. The pseudonyms include Elston Gunn, Tedham Porterhouse, Blind Boy Grunt, Bob Landy, as well as Lucky Wilbury and Boo Wilbury on the Traveling Wilburys albums. His character in the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, calls himself “Alias.”

Dylan’s history of using pseudonyms and celebrating masks mirrors his career-long pattern of exploring new modes of creativity and even identity, whether shifting from traditional folk music to rock, or causing a stir within the industry by “going electric,” or embracing Judaism or Christianity. He has, in effect, repeatedly invented new Bob Dylans.

Dylan’s invocation of masks, of multiple and changeable personae, is also consonant with the image that many have of him as an American bard, a poet of the common folk attuned to the multifaceted spirit of their nation. Historically, bards have been associated with epic poetry and song as well as the creation and celebration of national myths. Their works, written in the vernacular and hence accessible to everyone, have functioned to celebrate a nation’s vitality and provide a collective sense of identity. The dominant recent tradition comes largely from Celtic-Anglo-Irish-Scottish-Welsh culture, but draws upon earlier traditions. While the stories bards tell may have some factual basis, what is important for them is how they fashion their content into nationally resonant myths. Whether or not Homer accurately portrayed the historical Trojan War is less significant than the image of it he presented in his epic poems. Shakespeare, likewise, has been called the Bard of Avon. In his poetry and songs, Robert Burns, who was called the Bard of Ayrshire, defiantly used the Scottish dialect instead of the standard eighteenth-century English of his era to celebrate the vitality of Scotland‘s disenfranchised classes. In the refashioning of factual data, accuracy is not nearly as significant to these bards as how the work coheres into a resonant myth that evokes a national identity.

A fountainhead figure in American letters for this kind of endeavor is the poet Walt Whitman, who called himself “The Bard of Democracy.” His Song of Myself (1892) celebrates his own individuality hand-in-hand with that of the “self” of America at large. Asserting solidarity between himself and the reader under the umbrella of “America,” he opens the poem, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In Part 51 of the poem, Whitman directly and unashamedly addresses the notion of his self-depiction as being so expansive as to contain contradictions. “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” With Whitman and Dylan, contradictions are no big deal; issues of self and national identity are at stake.

Dylan has long acknowledged his debt to the folk artists who preceded him, particularly Woody Guthrie. Upon agreeing to establish his archives at the Helmerich Center for American Research, alongside Woody Guthrie’s, Dylan said, “I’m glad that my archives, which have been collected all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artifacts from the Native American Nations. To me it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great honor.”

The figures cited above—Guthrie, Whitman, Kerouac, Dylan, and Ginsberg—as artists who present themselves as emblematic of the spirit of America, all continue the bardic tradition. These artists have also given diverse and at times contradictory accounts of themselves, with little concern about such contradictions being particularly significant in light of the breadth, ambition, and social agenda of their endeavors.

Todd Haynes’s 2007 film, I’m Not There, provides a gloss on Dylan’s various public selves. A highly unusual, quasi-biopic in which six actors play diverse personae based on aspects of Dylan’s life, the film describes itself as “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.” Dylan himself only appears briefly in concert footage at the end, but manifests in fictional characters at various crossroads and metamorphic moments of personal development. The film’s very notion of character is fluid. Indifferent to traditional boundaries of gender, age, and race, the personae include a woman, a blues-singing African American child, and a burned-out cowboy. The actors include Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Richard Gere (who plays Billy McCarty or Billy the Kid, who rides a boxcar and finds Woody Guthrie’s guitar). Kris Kristofferson narrates the film and Bale’s character is presented as the son of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who was a part of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Despite his roots as the son of a Jewish doctor from Brooklyn, Elliott cultivated the image of a folksy, down home country boy and was known for telling rambling stories. One of his better known performances is “Pretty Boy Floyd” on his 1960 album Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie, which presents Floyd as a Depression-Era Robin Hood character in solidarity with the common folk of the land, such as farmers. The song invokes the American fascination with freedom-loving outlaw figures like Floyd and Billy the Kid.

Elliott was a protege of Woody Guthrie. His mastery of Guthrie’s work strongly influenced Dylan’s early career, and the two developed an abiding friendship. In concert, Elliott has even referred to Dylan as “my son.” A useful referent for Todd Haynes’s splintered characterization strategies appears in Kris Kristofferson’s introduction to his 1971 song, “The Pilgrim,” which Kristofferson declares as being in part about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: “He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction.” This applies to depictions of Dylan as well.


Dylan’s celebration of outlaw figures extends beyond romanticized historical criminals. It includes contemporaneous victims of injustice like the Native Americans Dylan visits and plays for on the Tuscarora Reservation in New York, as well as the boxer, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. While the film often employs a cavalier mix of fact-based and invented figures and events, it also foregrounds the bracing engagement of an actual, contemporaneous case of social injustice. Dylan performs his 1975 song, “Hurricane,” in concert, and the film also shows recent footage of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter himself expressing gratitude for Dylan’s role in overturning his murder charges after nearly 20 years in prison. Abruptly, then, in the midst of the film’s fabricated and often whimsical stories, Dylan verifiably reengages his protest roots for real-world effect. This sequence comprises part of the whirling narrative mix that incorporates the film’s diverse, often contradictory, approaches to its subject.

Even so, Scorsese’s film does not aspire to present a documentary record of the tour. So what is it up to? A useful model for approaching that complex question comes from what lies at the very center of the film—music and performance. Many of the songs in the film are ones that Dylan and the others have performed hundreds of times. Each time they sing those songs they bring them to life once again, for the present moment. And the present-ness, the very NOW-ness of that performative moment, of necessity changes from concert to concert, and over the decades. The same song performed by the same artist can take on different meanings in different contexts. The artist, who is always performing in the present moment, in the audience’s NOW, knows that he or she needs to make the performance feel new each time, with each activation. Musical performance is neither archeology nor documentary but must always be a present-tense activity. The song might be decades or even centuries old, but each time an artist performs it, it must exist and resonate within and for that moment. That perspective is pertinent to the film’s evocation of the tour.

A further perspective is evident in Scorsese’s engagement with the question of cinematic “truth.” In engaging what appears to be a traditional type of film, a record of a concert tour, he employs a number of avant garde and cutting-edge filmmaking strategies. He presents what appears to be a revival of an old tour in ways attuned to the latest media practices.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story never declares itself to be a documentary record, although many might come to it expecting one. Its notion of what it is, is much more fluid and cued by its unabashed use of blatant fabrications. It is not presenting us with settled “fact” but rather creating its own reality for its own NOW, underscored at the outset by the footage of Dylan declaring that the tour “happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.” What did he mean? On one level, of course, he was simply joking—the film provides abundant evidence of his presence on the tour. But seen from a different perspective, that presence was one from decades in the past, and in the intervening years Dylan has assumed many different masks, different personae as his way of re-inventing himself for changing times and ever-shifting socio-cultural environments. In effect, the film is giving a contemporaneous riff on the long-ago tour, less concerned with traditional presumptions about “accuracy” than with a celebration of the idea of the tour, filtered through memory and the desire to celebrate its legacy (which at times includes impulses toward hagiography).

If Dylan and Scorsese place such little value in factual recreation, why should we? They present compelling performances in a mythic recreation of a past event, one whose significance is retooled for 2019 and beyond. While the tour itself has been described as a financial bust, it has developed a mythic stature, one linked at the film’s end with Dylan’s ongoing touring life, his “Never Ending Tour” since 1988. And he is still touring! The closing credits list his subsequent tours up to 2018—more than 3,000 shows over a 40-year period. They imply that the Rolling Thunder Revue is ongoing and is inseparable from Dylan himself, the artist, his many masks, and their place in the ever-changing myth of America.


Timothy Hampton. Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work. Zone Books. New York: 2019. 285 pages. ISBN 978-1-942130-15-4. $29.95.

REVIEW BY Robert Reginio, Alfred University

Bob Dylan’s Poetics, the main title of Timothy Hampton’s excellent exploration of form, suggests that the study will detail a theoretically informed analysis of Dylan’s corpus in an attempt to make an argument about the philosophy of poetic language underpinning the artist’s experiments. The subtitle, How the Songs Work, tamps down one’s expectation for such a speculative study, connoting a strictly formalist approach to the songs. Neither the main title nor the subtitle gives one a sense of the study that follows.

What Hampton provides the scholar and critic is a model of theoretical and methodological diversity perfectly suited for the present moment of Dylan Studies. Attuned to literary genealogy, the forms of popular music that make up the texture of Dylan’s art, and the implications for listeners excited by the uncanny strangeness of even Dylan’s most popular tunes, Hampton is uninterested in stabilizing this moving target.

In Hampton’s study, Dylan is paradoxically both a curator and an iconoclast, oftentimes in the very same song. For example, in Hampton’s first chapter “Containing Multitudes: Modern Folk Song and the Search for Style,” he pays close attention to the dialects and idioms Dylan strategically uses in the song “With God On Our Side”:

The “hobo” language of “I’s taught and brought up there” immediately gives way to the old-fashioned sounding phrase “the laws to abide” which is semantically vague [it could mean either “to tolerate” or “to obey”] . . . the phrase generates an alienating effect, as if the singer knew something about grammar that we don’t, as if this phrase actually “worked” grammatically in some sociolect somewhere, in some local tongue that we would recognize if we knew what the singer knows. (37)

Hampton links the singer’s alienation from the history he has inherited and his concomitant solitude to the way Dylan places Guthriesque “hobo” language against the “old-fashioned” language of law and tradition. The drama of the singer’s disillusionment unfolds in our ear. As careful curator, Hampton implies, Dylan incorporates, even in his early compositions, a wide variety of phrases, idioms, and dialects. As Hampton insists, this “collage” of discourses creates an aural environment that is strangely familiar. But the spark of familiarity fades quickly, and as listeners we are uprooted from those discursive communities that lend us a sense of being at home. As an iconoclast, especially in “With God On Our Side,” Dylan employs this “collage” of discourses to question the primacy of any dominant narrative. Hampton’s study moves chronologically through Dylan’s recorded work. Dylan’s songs are shown to recover and to reanimate an ever-increasing range of citations. The tensile way in which these citations are curated in the songs oftentimes serves iconoclastic ends.

As Hampton argues in the following chapter, “Ramblin’ Boy: ‘Protest’ and the Art of Adaptation,” Dylan invents a new type of Guthrie/hobo figure to inhabit. This figure stands between the world of his primary listeners (white, college-educated members of the folk revival) and that of his sources (Hampton singles out African-American blues). Dylan deploys a kind of semantic wandering in fashioning this “rambling” figure. “[T]he invention of a new type of hobo,” writes Hampton, “is linked to the collage style of writing”:

Indeed, the two phenomena—the performing identity and the style of the lyric—are two sides of the same coin. The rambling boy is the thematic embodiment of the poetic technique shaping Dylan’s lyric style. Dylan’s composite lyricism, drawing on both working-class American idioms and “exotic” imported song forms, is the manifestation, at the level of form, of his mercurial persona, and vice versa. It is impossible to say which one generates the other. (50-51)

His songs (that is, the words and the music) offer performative sites where affect can be mapped, historical perspectives can be challenged, and literature can make urgent demands upon an engaged listener. The method of Dylan’s “composite” poetics produces lyrical and musical fragments. The result of his songs’ interrogation of their own coming-into-being is a dedicated iconoclasm.

“Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth,” Dylan sings on 1983’s Infidels. The line figures as a typical pronouncement of the doubled nature of language and performance in Dylan’s allusive art, suggesting anything from the echt-Romantic trope of the artist as merely the Aeolian harp the Muse(s) might deign to plug into the PA system, to the eyeball-and-cigarette Cubist-portraiture smoked and punched into place by the railroad man in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” This disfiguration aligns with that song’s lament about the artist’s existence as one filled with endlessly unspooling tape reels onto which he repeats refrains and echoes and reconfigures words.

For this reader, the most important implication of Hampton’s formal study is the theoretical argument it implies. Hampton clearly describes the remarkable way marshalling only a few echoes from folk songs or literary traditions allows Dylan to create a compelling series of personae. Performing in the guise of a constructed persona has always been at the center of Dylan’s art, and these performances have allowed him to fashion a voice replete with overlapping discursive echoes. And yet, however much a few scraps of previously shaped (or stolen) language can express the self, this process simultaneously undoes the stasis of self-identity. In exploring how Dylan’s songs work, therefore, Hampton presents the reader with a compelling narrative of an artist reinforcing and undoing the notion that an individual identity draws its strength from tradition.

On Infidels, the refrain of “I and I” focuses on just this sort of self-reflective poetics: “I and I / In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” The disorienting moment of self-reflection (“I and I”), of self-undoing, and the moment of “creation” seem linked in Dylan’s art: this is the implicit thesis of Hampton’s study, making Bob Dylan’s Poetics quite timely as scholars begin unearthing what the Bob Dylan Archive may tell us about how the songs work. In addition, Hampton is refreshingly polemical. Hampton insists, for example, that “Dylan’s own art, from its very first manifestations, has consistently questioned, taken apart, and criticized every feature of the very culture that made it possible” (13). In this statement, Hampton argues that a turn to sources is a critical act for Dylan. It is a recursive gesture, neither a recovery of the past nor an establishment of a link to the past that secures the singer’s sense of his place within a historical continuum.

Dylan expresses his fidelity to his sources by recreating, through allusion, the essentially disruptive effect those sources had upon him. Hampton’s framing of Dylan’s project in this way runs counter to critics who may read the performances’ multifarious cultural and historical contexts as grounding Dylan’s work in a variety of traditions. For Hampton, even Dylan’s earliest songs remain uncanny echo chambers. A tall order, then, for the twenty-first-century critic of Dylan’s art: one must carefully listen to the songs reverberate in the “memory palace” that makes Dylan’s art possible while attending to the cracks and fissures in the cultural foundations produced by the songs’ reverberations.

The resonant phrase “I and I“ is lifted without attribution from Rastafarian theology and twisted from its original theological emphasis on unity. Moreover, “I and I” is only a step away from Rimbaud’s infamous “Je est un autre” (“I is an other”). Hampton forcefully argues that for Dylan, informed by Rimbaud’s poetics of disintegration and visionary profusion, “[l]anguage . . . works through resonance, as much as through reference” (91). In a discussion of the visionary mode of Dylan’s mid-1960s work, Hampton steps beyond the by-now clichéd invocation of Rimbaud to illuminate the confusing, synesthetic labyrinths of epics like “Visions of Johanna” or “Chimes of Freedom.” He establishes Rimbaud as a writer for whom the dissolution of the cultural foundations of poetry energizes the act of creation.

One of the most valuable interventions offered by Hampton’s book occurs when the context offered by Rimbaud’s poetics is expanded to include the tradition of modernist poetics. Less interested in delineating precise lines of influence, Hampton identifies “the technical discoveries of modernist art” as the proper context for Dylan’s poetics (26-7). The most salient discoveries for his analyses of Dylan’s songs are:

the fragmentation of time and space, the vexed worrying about the past, about tradition and originality, the idea of culture as ruin, [and] the emphasis on artificial or invented objects and moments as bearers of peak or authentic experience within an increasingly unreal ‘real world.’ (27)

While one can sense the paradoxes to come in identifying “authentic experience” as the result of an encounter with the “artificial,” Hampton’s sketch of modernist art’s preoccupations supports his assertion that we read Dylan in the light of this specific literary tradition. Dylan’s recursive exploration of American popular music—from rock and roll to folk revivalism and back to rock again—is reflected in the powerful performance of the songs.

For example, when reading “Tangled Up in Blue” as concerned with “the problem of generational identity as a problem of collective illusion” (i.e., as a fragmented, critical return to a time when “revolution was in the air”), Hampton argues that the song’s propulsive form inaugurates “the theme of performance,” a thematic concern that casts “his own song as a special type of illusion, as fragmented lyric insight, self-conscious, oblique, even difficult” (140). As the forms of Dylan’s 1960s “vision music” settled into a kind of mannerism, Hampton argues Dylan turned to the contrapuntal structure of the sonnet (as defined by Petrarch) to occupy, as performer, this oblique relation to the past. Hampton’s formal analysis of “Tangled Up in Blue” remains consistently linked to his figuration of Dylan as a modernist: “Dylan’s response [to stylistic mannerism] is to turn to older forms of representation, archaic models that can help power an ironic break with the recent past” (141). This gesture, of course, is a modernist one: in this quote Hampton could be describing the poetic theories of Ezra Pound, his infamous injunction to “make it new” invigorated by a fixation on the power of the fragments of Sappho to break the back of decorative Victorian verse.

Indeed, according to Hampton, Dylan is alive to Rimbaud’s provocations and the modernist poetry that followed, even in his earliest compositions. Dylan’s citation from Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” in “Song for Woody” (“Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men / Who come with the dust and are gone with the wind”) is, Hampton insists, a complex gesture. “Dylan cites these lines to evoke not the life of the migrant worker,” he explains, “but the wandering (and well-known) folk singers who were Guthrie’s friends” (55). Teasing out the implications of such a layered allusion, Hampton argues “at the very moment that Dylan cites Guthrie’s account of migratory labor experience, he turns that citation against itself. Those who wander nowadays are folksingers” (56). For a young Dylan introduced to Rimbaud’s poetics, “I is another” denotes perhaps his recognition of himself in the French provocateur. That would also be a doubled moment: in it, the artist discovers a resonant lineage while also realizing that he is (as we all are under the conditions of modernity) belated. The question thereby remains: how does it feel?

In terms of the songs’ powerful effects on how we feel, one must consider Hampton’s augmentation of his brilliant lyrical analyses with his exemplary musicological description. Like Alex Ross, Hampton remains scrupulously detailed in registering the changes in key and chord structure that undergird Dylan’s songs without discouraging a reader unfamiliar with musicological nomenclature. A riveting moment comes in Chapter Three: “Absolutely Modern: Electric Music and Visionary Song.” As he tells the story of Dylan’s development from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding, Hampton’s analysis of the musical structure of “All Along the Watchtower” sheds light on Dylan’s commitment to a thoroughgoing questioning of identity. “The density of figuration” (a wonderful phrase that could be applied to many songs on the album) in “All Along the Watchtower” is a result of the fact that “no narrative mediation links the Joker and the Thief” to the song’s “two riders.” Joker (an artist figure) and Thief (a marauder) “exist in equipoise,” thereby frustrating an attempt to pin down the artist as a marauder engaged in acts of love and theft (116). Hampton then explains that this “density of figuration” can be heard in the musical structure of the song. He notes that the chords which make up the harmony of the tune are “very close in sound” and “the only break in this dense structure is the one-beat passing chord, a B major, which, like a swimmer emerging for an instant to grab a breath renders perceptible the otherwise murky alternation” of the two linked chords that make up the basis of the tune (116). We hear, in this description, the song’s ability to suggest an apocalyptic conclusion while flashes of individual histories (like the conversation of Joker and Thief) break the surface. Even a reader unfamiliar with the technical language of musical notation can follow along, grasping the precipitous soundscape that links the fate of Joker and Thief. As Hampton’s analysis reveals, however, “All Along the Watchtower” contains a fleeting, energized interruption that tugs at the ear. This subtle inflection essentially questions the notion of fate. Such an effect underscores the song’s ambiguous conclusion. Blonde on Blonde’s phantasmagoric indeterminacies are pared back on John Wesley Harding, but Hampton uses his musicological analysis to nail down the essential continuities between these albums.

And yet, the scrupulous analyses of both lyric and music in this book seem hampered by a need on the author’s part to ground any speculative poetic theorizing on definitive sources (e.g., he assures us all too often about the relevance of Rimbaud’s proto-modernist poetics by alluding to Dylan’s own allusions to the French rebel in interviews and liner notes). Such strict bookkeeping cannot at all be faulted—this is an exceedingly erudite book in which every endnote counts, in which every proposition is slotted aptly into an apposite critical conversation, sometimes far afield of Dylan Studies. Hampton’s book registers that the most beautiful aspect of the music is when, inside these museums that make up Dylan’s songs, echoes sound familiar and estranged in the same moment. His study satisfies in the way that it offers several schemas for reading Dylan’s work, and he proves most adept at utilizing the work of writers known for their determined arguments about poetics (Rimbaud and Brecht, for example). But he leaves no schema in a fixed central position. This rhetorical move strengthens the book.

On the other hand, at times Hampton seems beholden to language used as a vehicle for moral argument. In such moments we lose sight of Dylan the iconoclast. For example, Hampton sometimes explains that Dylan’s songs “mediate” between phenomena. In commenting on Infidels’ critique of neoliberal capitalism, Hampton writes that the song “Jokerman,” because of its allegorical nature, “works to mediate between private experience and the public experience that was being retooled for the full onset of neoliberalism” (186, my emphasis). The verb “to mediate” is vague. It suggests there is a role the song plays between its affective power over its listener (its status as an artwork) and the social surround (the history it reflects). The vagueness of the verb holds back a potentially radical reading of literature itself. Rather than “mediator,” is it not that a song like “Jokerman,” in its ironic subversion of the putative ends of allegory, stands as (or in) the gap between commodifiable cultural products and history itself? Hampton gives voice to this potentiality when he writes of this song’s “self-consuming dimension,” how all the virtue imbued in the figure of the “Jokerman” “is revealed by the last lines to have been an illusion.” Hampton continues, “[t]he album may be full of infidels and idolaters, but we may be the biggest infidels of them all if we believed Jokerman could fix things” (185). Hampton’s insight can be brought to bear upon the song’s own enunciation of its various intertexts in a leveling list: “the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” We begin with the Jewish scriptural roots of Dylan’s Christianity when he invokes some of the most proscriptive texts in the Torah. We then hear the everyday excuse for apathy in the face of exploitation (“it’s the [natural] law of the jungle”). “[T]he sea” suggests a kind of generic “poetic” setting. Listing—as it was for Joyce, and more corrosively for Beckett—is a de-essentializing, satiric gesture. Hampton’s arguments therefore shed light on the difficult “fixity” of the Dylan text when they stray from the tendency to see the songs as “mediators” of our experience in a history already mediated by texts and scriptures.

It is a testament to Hampton’s sensitive, critical connection to his subject that the various forms of interpretation Dylan’s work has yielded are felt at every moment in his text. But it makes for a crowded book. Hampton seems prepared for a full-length study of Dylan’s work from 1997 to the present. For example, his chapter on “Late Style and the Politics of Citation” is a brilliant exploration of what Hampton insists has always been present in Dylan’s work: a radically leveling reincorporation of distinct discursive modes and traditions into new patterns of expression. His argument thereby steps beyond the commanding formal analyses of Christopher Ricks and their relative silence on the problem of history. Early on, Hampton argues

Dylan was able to seize [the] empty space in the structure of the folk music world, presenting himself as “authentic” yet not “traditional.” He was shrewd enough not to try to reinsert traditional songs back into their now distant contexts . . . [r]ather, he would invent the fiction of a new cultural space beyond the mainstream. (31)

The loaded distinction between “authentic” and “traditional” in this passage (i.e., between a cultural expression steeped in its past and one aware of the terminal nostalgia of “traditional” recreations) is incisive. Recognizing this distinction sets Hampton up to describe Dylan as aware of the patterning of the self through discursive streams whose sources remain counter-voices to the “homogeneous empty time” of modernity. As he insists about Dylan’s work: “The voices of the past are violently available to the imagination at any time. They ring through the present. A body on the street in Manhattan could be from Gettysburg. If Dylan is anything, he is a historical poet” (34). The adverb “violently” in this quotation carries with it a clear-eyed and convincing sense that Dylan’s borrowings, as much as they exploit textual indeterminacy to open up a space of expressive freedom, nevertheless carry with them a political and ethical charge.

This foundational definition of Dylan’s poetics as eminently historical, while not only furthering the argument that Dylan may be placed in a modernist context, establishes a theoretical leitmotif in the book that sheds new light on Dylan’s most recent compositions. Rather than trucking in universal categories of morality and judgment, Dylan is preoccupied with violence. On the one hand, he is drawn to the figurative violence of disruptive modernist poetics. These strategies can be found in Dylan’s meta-awareness of his audience in his mid-1960s work, which also comments on the violence of modernity’s appropriating cultural industries. On the other hand, Hampton insists Dylan is responsive to the traumas of historical violence and how these traumas define the American landscape.

Coming full-circle in the book’s later chapters, Hampton argues that Dylan’s work after Oh Mercy explores “the processes of cultural memory and the isolation of the individual cut off from past and community. . . . The answer to desolation seems to be self-conscious performance and the circulation of bits of cultural information [based on] a rhetoric of the fragment” (218). Perhaps one of the central questions of modernist poetics—is a fragment a recovery of a part of the past, a suturing of present and past in the name of justice, or an untimely presence testifying, in unending echo, to loss?—lingers over Hampton’s stunning analysis of “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Rather than figuring Dylan as an artist in exile, on his own among his storehouse of memories, Hampton uses the song’s Ovidian allusions to think deeply about exile itself. For Hampton, exile is not a transhistorical, existential fate for the poet cast from the realm of power, nor is it expressive of an artist’s contrarian agency, as it may be in the voluntary exile of James Joyce from the fair north country of Ireland. In the lives of Guthrie’s wandering hobos, as well as in Dylan’s early ruminations on the dark side of “wanderin’” in songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Don’t Think Twice,” and “One Too Many Mornings,” exile is a felt phenomenon. Hampton, however, makes a crucial distinction: “Whereas Guthrie sings about the rambling forced on him by the Dust Bowl, Dylan’s persona rambles to get songs that he can then sing . . . about his rambling to get songs” (46, ellipsis in the original). A footnote in Hampton’s text takes in Walter Benjamin’s theorization of the flâneur and Peter Doyle’s study of Jimmie Rodgers’ invention of the wandering American cowboy singer. The intersection of the footnote and Hampton’s reading of Dylan’s Guthrie persona spark manifold possibilities for reading Dylan as invested in the perpetuation of a series of stylized personae that simultaneously reflect and undermine an understanding of modernity as that which threatens authentic identifications. Both of the cityscape and removed from it, Benjamin’s flâneur is not so distinct from Jimmie Rodgers’ own “wandering” persona. Hampton’s critical survey of Dylan’s self-fashioning has the virtue, therefore, of remaining steadfastly equivocal on the status of popular culture and the cultural products we designate as “art.” While this mixing of high and low culture is a well-worn feature of most accounts of Dylan’s work, Hampton indicates avenues of critical speculation where Dylan doesn’t simply “mediate” between “high” and “low” culture. Rather, as in Benjamin, Dylan intermixes ways of reading “proper” to high culture with those affects that are “simply” the province of mass culture’s consumable products. To shift between these ways of reading leaves a listener informed by Hampton’s study in a virtual state of exile.

Hampton’s culminating reading of “Workingman’s Blues #2” exemplifies the study’s productive methodology. In his analysis, Hampton strategically unpicks the citational threads in the opening verse of the song. The reference to “the Proletariat” brings us back to Guthrie’s crowded union halls, while the line “They say low wages are a reality” sounds like a snippet of punditry echoing from a TV set. As Hampton argues, the line “is a secondhand thought, something picked up, perhaps, at a tavern like the one celebrated by [Merle] Haggard’s well-employed hero” (219). If there is a constant, Hampton argues, it is that exploitation, a founding aspect of neoliberal capitalism, has the power to surround us with a plethora of consumable goods, but its historical working out leaves us with only those (in this song, now scarce) products. Disconnection and dispersal, interwoven in the song’s lyrics, leaves us achingly nostalgic and empty. Moving from the song’s references to Ovid and his exile, Hampton argues that the entire point of this song “is that, in the world of globalized capital, everyone is an exile. Even if you are home, you are not at home” (220, emphasis in the original). Sensitive to the different registers of discourse juxtaposed in the opening verse, Hampton notes that “the break in history that I have highlighted throughout Dylan’s late work, the split between an empty present and some earlier moment of plenitude and meaning, is here intensified through the Ovid reference. Not even Ovid had it this bad” (220).

For Hampton, Dylan investigates the effects of formal experimentation. His experimentation—informed by the modernist preoccupation with the problem of history and the recursive play of citation against expression—takes us from “the dynamic blends of idioms that characterizes the early songs . . . to [the mid 1960’s] collage of images, names, and cultural references” (97). The literary equivalent of guitar feedback, his songs become “mosaics of cultural noise” (97). Dylan’s late style retains a fidelity to such restless innovation. For Hampton, Dylan’s allusive late style does not serve to veil an essential self: his late style presses blues lyricism (and the poetics of the resonant fragment) against the narrative coherence of the traditional ballad. “[T]he structural looseness of the late style dovetails with the conventions of the most archaic of forms, which lends itself perfectly to the disjointed postmodern world being painted,” Hampton writes. (204). We thereby find in Dylan’s art an unblinking focus on form as a means through which we can feel our own being in history: a time out of joint, a time out of mind.


Andrew Muir. The True Performing of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare. Red Planet Music Books: 2019. Pp. 368. Paperback UK £15.99. US $24.95. ISBN 978-1-9127-3395-8.

REVIEW BY Stuart Hampton-Reeves, University of Warwick

At one time it was fashionable to compare Dylan to John Keats, so it is a measure of how Dylan’s stature in Western culture has grown over the decades that he is now more likely to be compared to the greatest of all Western writers, William Shakespeare. What links a sixteenth-century Warwickshire playwright to a twentieth-century Minnesotan singer-songwriter? The answer, of course, is virtually nothing, and neither writer benefits particularly from the comparison. Dylan’s work owes more to Ginsberg, Eliot and Pound than it does to either Shakespeare or Keats. There is something mischievous in the way that the question tends to be posited. In the days of “Dylan and Keats”, the conjuring of names was meant as a way of starting a conversation about poetic excellence: quite simply, was Dylan as good a poet as Keats? “Dylan and Shakespeare,” on the other hand, tugs in a different direction. This comparison is more about cultural status: will future generations see Dylan as important as Shakespeare? Ennobled by a clutch of literary prizes, and possibly at the end of his career as a songwriter, Dylan may be our culture’s best offering to the ages.

I prefer “Dylan and Shakespeare.” Although as different as they can be as writers, they do share a similar place in their prevailing culture. Both started their careers as performers rather than writers—Shakespeare as an actor, Dylan as a folksinger. When they wrote, they were fiercely conscious of the live audiences they would be performing to. Although many of us encounter Shakespeare in books, he always wrote with performance in mind. Dylan never just sings his songs, he performs them, and he strives to find some new angle that makes the song unique to that moment. Bob and William share an investment in popular culture; they both care about their audiences enough to give them something of what they want. Yet while respecting and admiring popular entertainment, they both transcend it. In Shakespeare’s case, he started writing straight-forward plays and enjoyed a parallel career as a poet. His poem “Venus and Adonis” was the big hit of his early career, his “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At some point around 1595, perhaps less than five years into his writing career, Shakespeare seems to have had some kind of epiphany, because he starts bringing poetic language into his plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its companion play, Romeo and Juliet, have a poetic intensity missing from earlier plays, as if Shakespeare had decided to bring his skills as a poet to the then somewhat disreputable form of the common play. This is the closest Shakespeare came to “going electric.”

Andrew Muir’s The True Performing of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare is an admirably exhaustive study of the two writers. The ordering of the names on the title page suggests that Dylan has some kind of precedence, although Muir’s previous work was a fine study of Shakespeare and Cambridge. Muir and I share an admiration for the Cambridge schoolteacher H. Caldwell Cook, who is a central character in Shakespeare in Cambridge (Amberly Publishing, 2015), and who makes a somewhat implausible cameo in this study of Shakespeare and Dylan. Cook’s appearance is indicative of the level of detail that Muir marshals in his forensic, side-by-side dissection of the two corpuses. As Muir himself notes, “it is not difficult to build correspondences between any two artists” (9), particularly when their body of work is so large. Muir is acutely aware of the dissimilarities between Dylan and Shakespeare, but he does not want to write about those: instead, his interest is in the intersections between their “working practices.”

Indeed, this is where the comparison starts to get interesting. Few writers in history have been accused of plagiarism as much as Dylan and Shakespeare. Many of Dylan’s tunes are borrowed from folk songs, there are whole websites devoted to his selective “quoting” of (for example) Henry Timrod, and even his Nobel prize acceptance speech has since been exposed as riddled with “similarities” to other texts. Shakespeare, too, was an adapter. Despite what one may have seen in the film Shakespeare in Love, he did not invent the plot of Romeo and Juliet (he based it on a popular poem by Arthur Brookes). He drew heavily on Plutarch and Holinshed for his Roman and History plays, sometimes word-for-word; he raided Cinthio for Othello, Boccaccio for Cymbeline, Chaucer for Troilus and Cressida—and so on. There are few truly original plays in Shakespeare’s canon. As Muir points out, both the legal and cultural context for authorship was very different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Adaptation and imitation were a respected part of the creative process in Shakespeare’s time, whereas Dylan has faced greater scrutiny and even mockery for his many borrowings. Here, it is useful to call Shakespeare as a witness for the defense. If Shakespeare can create great art that is a creative and transformative assemblage of other writers, then why not Dylan? Part of the way both writers have been able to create such a rich and diverse canon is through their extensive assimilation of other writers. The young Dylan was notorious for spending hours in listening booths absorbing hundreds of folk songs which he had an uncanny ability to pick up after only a few hearings. Shakespeare too seems to have been something of a cultural sponge, absorbing, recycling and recreating classical and contemporary sources and turning them into remarkable works which transcend their origins.

Muir is also interested in the social and cultural contexts for his chosen subjects. Chapters on religion and political contexts bring into focus the way that writing and music interact with the world around them, and occasionally have an impact on the way people think. It is a valuable exercise to put Dylan and Shakespeare into context, especially as we are now at a point where we have enough distance to start to see Dylan as a figure of history rather than as a contemporary. However, Muir is on noticeably thinner ground here than elsewhere in the book, as contexts tend to separate artists out rather than flatten the distance between them. Shakespeare lived in the fraught aftermath of a tremendous religious schism. Born in 1564, Shakespeare would have been old enough to have remembered the old morality and mystery plays which were later banned by Elizabeth’s government, nervous of the potential those plays had to incite religious division. Shakespeare was effectively banned from writing about religion and contemporary politics, and when he did so, he did it in allusive and subtle ways, which means scholars are still arguing about Shakespeare’s religious and political beliefs centuries later. Dylan has lived through some interesting times and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s helps to mitigate some of his less politically acceptable speeches during his “born again” phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Shakespeare is a natural reference point for any writer, especially one whose cultural knowledge is as expansive as Dylan’s. Dressed in a jester’s outfit and talking to a French girl in an Alabaman alley, Shakespeare is a character in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” His own characters also appear from time to time in Dylan’s work: Ophelia sits beneath a window peering into Desolation Row; in “Po’ Boy,” Desdemona gives Othello poisoned wine in an odd conflation of Othello and the denouement to Hamlet, an image which Muir intriguingly links to carnival burlesques and minstrel shows Dylan recalls seeing as a boy. Muir’s chapter on “Shakespeare in Dylan” may prove to be the last word on the subject, for Muir offers many examples of ways in which Dylan has quoted, reshaped, or simply reflected Shakespeare. Sometimes he over-reaches. Metrical similarities between Feste’s song in Twelfth Night and “Percy’s Song” may simply be the result of both drawing on the ballad tradition. I’m not overly convinced that the “painted face on a trip down Suicide Road” is Ophelia, but I accept that this is the sort of creative and subtle borrowing that Dylan is good at. In a witty move that I suspect both Dylan and Shakespeare would approve of, Muir follows this with a chapter on “Dylan in Shakespeare,” which reminds us that, because Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being performed and filmed, he exists very much in the present as a contemporary writer. For example, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film Hamlet includes an excerpt from “All Along the Watchtower” in its soundtrack, and the man who digs Ophelia’s grave also sings the song. Muir goes on to discuss Dylan references in Almereyda’s 2014 film Cymbeline and Robert Icke’s 2017 theater production of Hamlet.

Muir’s survey of Dylan and Shakespeare is so broad that there are, inevitably, mistakes and misconceptions. For example, he misleadingly compares Shakespeare’s collaboration with Thomas Middleton to Dylan’s collaboration with U2 on the track “Love Rescue Me.” Although we know very little about how Shakespeare collaborated, few if any scholars believe that he and Middleton sat down together to compose plays: more likely, Middleton was asked to dust down plays Shakespeare had already written for fresh performance, possibly years after Shakespeare had written them, which makes Middleton more of a script editor than a co-writer. I am not sure that it can be said that Shakespeare did not care about the printing of his plays given that almost half of them appeared in print during his lifetime (Muir’s claim that “Shakespeare’s plays in quarto format had nothing to do with him” (29) is unprovable and seems unlikely). Shakespeare’s early retirement from the stage suggests otherwise—it seems likely that he was spending at least some of his time in Stratford preparing his works for publication, as several of the ones that appeared in his posthumous complete works, known to the ages as the “First Folio” and published in 1623, were so long that they would have been unlikely to have been performed in the “two hours traffic” of the early modern stage. Muir is on better ground with Dylan, although I am not sure I can agree with his claim that “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” has entered the English language as a commonplace.

Dylan has almost written Muir’s conclusion for him by titling his 2012 album Tempest. As many newspapers were quick to notice, the title appears to be a reference to Shakespeare’s last play (at least, the last that he wrote solo), The Tempest, which is arguably about the “magic” of theater and poetry, and ends with the magician breaking his staff and abjuring his magic. The temptation to see Prospero as a cipher for Shakespeare has proved irresistible to even the most cynical scholars. Could Tempest be Dylan’s last album? Dylan’s people were quick to refute that suggestion, but as we enter into 2020 (at the time of writing), with no new material from Dylan for the best part of a decade, one begins to wonder if Tempest will prove to be his final artistic statement. The dark is drawing closer: Dylan does not have long to capstone his career with new work. Muir’s finale, then, is a spirited comparative analysis of The Tempest and Tempest with some nice observations about the way Ovid and Homer influence both.

What, then, is to be gained from over three hundred pages of side-by-side comparison between the two Bards? Perhaps very little in truth: the book serves to remind us how different Shakespeare and Dylan are, both as men and as writers. The book is at its most persuasive when it uses one to frame the other: that they are both performers who write for performance seems to me to be a useful way of de-mythologizing both of them. The contexts of their work were both highly charged politically and socially, but in very different ways. That Dylan was influenced by Shakespeare is hardly surprising, since all writers in English are whether they know it or not—if anything, Muir’s study here highlights how infrequently Dylan has turned to the other bard for inspiration over his long career. And one might have expected a cultural figure as influential as Dylan to have intruded on modern performances of Shakespeare many more times than the three somewhat obscure examples that Muir finds. None of this detracts from the book’s achievement. Muir has synthesized an impressive amount of detail which he marshals in an intriguing way. As the “long twentieth century” draws to a close and we look at the cultural achievements which our times offer up to the centuries, it may well be that Bob Dylan’s work is one of those, but only time will tell if the people of the twenty-fourth century revere his work as much as we do the plays of William Shakespeare.

Otiono, Nduka and Josh Tosh, editors. Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. vii + 212 pp. $109.99

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg

There are now two periods in Dylan studies, pre- and post-Nobel, and this new edited collection inscribes itself from the start as a product of the 2016 Nobel watershed. It also reflects the curious circumstance that, while the Swedish Academy’s award was the final act of the gradual, decades-long process of conferral of literary respectability on the Dylan œuvre, that same award has also, perhaps paradoxically, generated a passionate defense in some quarters of the primacy of performance over text in Dylan’s work. Examples may be found in Andrew Muir’s recent book-length study of Dylan and Shakespeare, and among the contributions to the 2019 international Dylan conference in Tulsa. The present volume may be considered as aligned primarily with this tendency. Regarding the prioritizing of performance (and thus of song over text), one might wish here to recall the words of France’s prestigious poet—as namechecked by Dylan on Blood on the Tracks—Paul Verlaine: “De la musique avant toute chose . . . et tout le reste est littérature” (“Music above all . . . and all the rest is literature”). From such a perspective, (performed) music comes first and literature second.

The collective volume is the work of eleven contributors (eight male and three female) from the academic milieu, including the two editors, based variously in Canada (both editors, including Nigerian-born creative writer and academic Nduka Otiono), the United States (eight) and Germany (one). The component texts consist of an introduction co-signed by the editors and eight chapters, one of them (chapter 8) co-authored. The book spans a wide range of perspectives, for the most part anchored in Dylan’s performance orientation, while not neglecting close lyric analysis and with reference back to the Nobel a recurring trope. The title not only points to the multiplicity of Dylan’s selves but also, by signaling in the term “polyvocal” his many voices, anticipates the book’s alignment with performance, of which voice is so vital a part.

The introduction (chapter 1), co-signed by the editors, argues that despite the Swedish Academy’s “justifying of [Dylan’s work] as readable text,” “awarding Dylan the Nobel in literature is not the same as awarding it to Yeats or Eliot” (1). This is not to undermine the award as such, but to avow that Dylan’s presence on the Nobel roster forces a redefinition of “literature,” since “we cannot simply ‘read’ the vast bulk of Dylan’s work”: the musical and performance dimension is always there. Dylan’s Nobel, the editors suggest, has provoked in the literary world “a sense of unease that is readily comparable to the unease sparked by the rise of the novel at the close of the eighteenth century” (4). They conclude that his œuvre “is literary only insofar as it is musical” and “readable only insofar as it must also be heard” (5), stressing the multiplicity of Dylan’s voices and underpinning the notion of a “polyvocal Dylan” with the key concept of polyphony, deriving from literary theory via the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. The chapters that follow, they affirm, “develop our understanding of Dylan and place his textual and performative art within a larger context of cultural and literary studies” (11).

Chapter 2, by Damian A. Carpenter, is entitled “Restless Epitaphs: Revenance and Dramatic Tension in Bob Dylan’s Early Narratives,” and it lays its main emphasis on Dylan’s ambivalent relationship with certain of his poetic predecessors (T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost), regarding not so much their actual poems as their concept of literature (Eliot’s “historical sense,” Frost’s “sound of sense”). Carpenter sees Dylan as a “poetic songwriter,” one who combines criteria of both poetry and song and creates a new paradigm from their fusion: “he would need to not simply imitate the traditional structure [of poetry or song] but also reorder it, speak to his present” (37). The author follows up his theoretical considerations with a close lyric analysis of “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “North Country Blues,” which succeeds in illuminating and expounding the sense of two somewhat undervalued early-Dylan triumphs.

Chapter 3, by Charles O. Hartman, confronts the (non-academic) reader with a title that may appear a shade forbidding—”Dylan’s Deixis.” The author defines the linguistic term as an aspect of language whereby certain words (notably pronouns) “take on referential meaning within the context of a situation shared by speaker and listener” (55), resulting in not always predictable shifts in meaning. Armed with this theoretical apparatus, Hartman invokes songs such as “I Want You” or “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind,” or, as he puts it, “most famously,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and Dylan’s “vacillations” around that song’s lyric, in order to point up the shifting, unstable nature of words as apparently basic as “I,” “you” or “he” in Dylan’s writing (57). A highlight of the chapter is a closely argued interrogation of the pronominal complexities in that great neglected song, “Up to Me” (58): all in all, the initial conceptual difficulty of this chapter is compensated for by the quality of the lyric analyses.

In Chapter 4, “Not Just Literature: Exploring the Performative Dimensions of Bob Dylan’s Work,” Keith Nainby, implicitly pursuing a Verlainean “music above all” line, takes up the cudgels for the prioritizing of performance, writing: “for Dylan, songs are living, and only ever fully present in the moment of expression” (80). He affirms that in Dylan’s work, “poetry depends not merely on the words themselves but on how they are engaged through his performing artistry as a vocalist” (68), and stresses Dylan’s status as “performer of his own compositions” (69). He effectively treats Dylan’s studio recordings themselves as performances; thus, Nainby notes how in the Blood on the Tracks version of “Idiot Wind” a deliberately “poor” articulation reflects and reinforces the despairing sentiments of the stanzas’ end-words (75), and explicates how in “Most of the Time” Dylan’s “weak voicing of the halting promise to ‘endure’ even as the sound of the word itself cannot” (79). For Nainby, Dylan’s vocals exhibit “the paradox of articulation—its capacity to both join and confound” (78).

Astrid Franke’s Chapter 5, entitled “The Complexities of Freedom and Dylan’s Notion of the Listener,” reads the polyvocal in Dylan as an expression of “individual freedom” and “self-determination” (88), and of—using Raymond Williams’ term—a “structure of feeling” in the form of an “impetus to start anew” (91). She further finds a tension in Dylan’s songwriting between individuality and the urge, present in many of his love songs, to achieve the “merging of one’s personality with that of another being,” stressing here the initiatic role of the addressed female “you” as indicated by the titles in such songs as “Precious Angel,” “Covenant Woman”  or “Oh, Sister” (92). Regarding performance, the author argues that by radically reinterpreting his classics on stage, “Dylan attempts to free the songs themselves of their past and thus urges his old fans (and also his critics) to discover the songs anew, freeing them, too, of their listening habits” (93). She concludes that “to have [someone like Dylan] around so long” in an activity of constant reinvention is “a gift to [our] culture” (97).

Katherine Weiss, in her chapter 6, “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and the Question of American Identity,” offers the volume’s first more specialized case study, tracing the interaction between Bob Dylan and the celebrated dramatist and film scriptwriter Sam Shepard. The author traces out the Dylan/Shepard story through three main sources: Shepard’s participation in the Rolling Thunder Revue; their songwriting collaboration, in the shape of the outstanding co-written song “Brownsville Girl”; and Shepard’s one-act play of 1987, True Dylan. Weiss identifies as a common thread Shepard’s pursuit of Dylan’s masks, a search stretched out over time and by its nature never-ending. If Shepard argues that “Dylan has invented himself,” Weiss adds that the former repeatedly “comes back to the philosophical question of who Dylan is” (103). She considers that for both artists “identity is a performative act” (105) and that both “reflect upon the fluidity of American identity and the need for and destabilization of the myths that help to form what it means to be American” (102).

Chapter 7, John McCombe’s “Bob Dylan’s ‘Westerns’: Border Crossings and the Flight from ‘the Domestic’,” reads as less concerned with performance than with identity, pushing that issue into the area of genre. Starting out from certain tropes of the celebrated (mostly cinematic) “Western” genre, the author identifies in Dylan’s work, on the one hand, notions of the rebel outlaw hero and, on the other, the converse temptation of domesticity. Scoured for these themes are both the Dylan film canon (his participation in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and such “Western”-themed songs as “John Wesley Harding,” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” or “Isis”—the latter being considered as “Western” despite its “pyramids embedded in ice,” that image being seen as a proxy for the hills of Wyoming (134-135). The author contends that “Dylan’s westerns regularly conform to, and occasionally subvert, gender-based binaries that distinguish the classical Hollywood western” (122).

Chapter 8, co-written by Emily O. Wittman and Paul R. Wright, is entitled “‘I Don’t Do Sketches from Memory’: Bob Dylan and Autobiography” and, taking its cue from the line from “Highlands” quoted in the title, examines Dylan’s attitude to life-writing, as reflected in the songs and in Chronicles, foregrounding what the authors call “a defiant interiority unmoored from temporality” (142). Like Chapter 7, this study explores Dylan’s work more from the vantage point of identity than from that of performance. “Highlands” is analyzed, with the focus on the exchange with the Boston waitress who requests a sketch, as a song that embodies the “tension between the visual and the verbal arts” (144), potentially forming a bridge between Dylan’s core activity as musician and his forays into visual art. Songs defined as autobiographical, including “My Back Pages” and “Idiot Wind” (the latter seen as “raging with the power of King Lear on the heath” (53), are analyzed as exhibiting a contradiction between “self-presentation and self-obfuscation,” while Chronicles is characterized as an exercise in autobiography that is “explicit (yet highly evasive).” In his memoir, Dylan is seen as rejecting the generic model derived from Saint Augustine’s Confessions, grounded in “chronological coherence,” instead following in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) reconstitutes the past “without . . . linear narrative, as a means to think through the present” (158). The authors affirm that Dylan’s memoir has the impact of “rethinking and reworking the very genre of autobiography itself” (155)—and that “his songs are autobiographical, but you will be thwarted if you try to figure him out” (166). Once again, it is a many-faced Dylan that emerges from this chapter’s analysis.

The ninth and last chapter, by co-editor Nduka Otiono, strikes a visibly different note from its predecessors, and some will certainly find it the most immediately readable. Entitled “Beyond Genre: Lyrics, Literature and the Influence of Bob Dylan’s Transgressive Creative Imagination,” it charts the history of Dylan’s influence in Nigeria, thus forming a valuable addition to a sub-corpus of Dylanology (reception studies) whose enrichment is always desirable insofar as it helps correct the conscious or unconscious U.S.-centric slant that characterizes the majority of Dylan studies. Otiono starts out from the Nobel and the general issue it raises of Dylan’s literariness, moving on to the very specific “case study” of his reception in the Nigerian literary world. He shows how his music “cast a spell” on a group of Nigerian writers, including Otiono himself—and this despite the fact that “Bob Dylan has never played a concert” in any African country; Nduka Otiono was nonetheless entranced by the image of “African trees” in “Man in the Long Black Coat” (174). He compares Dylan’s appeal to that of Fela Kuti, the “Afrobeat King” and doyen of Nigerian music (179, 181), and recalls how, for himself and his creative group in Lagos, Dylan was, to quote his fellow writer Afam Akeh, “one of our significant presiding spirits” (184), and, in Otiono’s own words, “a quintessential example of the composite artist who straddles our polyvocal creative aspirations” (187). Dylan’s multiplicity is thus received with open arms by artists in and from a culture far from similar to his own.

Many are those whose work has posed the no-doubt unanswerable question: “Who is Bob Dylan?” This volume may be seen as an accumulation of partial answers to that question, predicated on the awareness that there can never be one single or definitive take on the matter. Its multiplicity of perspectives is given a certain unity by the recurring themes of identity, performance, and the Nobel. The emphasis on performance over text is clear throughout, whether implicitly or explicitly, and at one point studio recording too is subsumed into performance. The various lyric analyses, while often dense and detailed, tend to emphasize the “how” of the songs rather than the “what.” Such an approach is evidently laudable and necessary insofar as it corresponds to a vital set of facets of Dylan’s work, recalling also that his creative oeuvre is not confined to songwriting and that he is an artist practicing in diverse other media.

The text-orientated tradition, however, has been a key aspect of Dylan studies ever since the first edition of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man hit the bookshops in 1972, and has borne fruit over the years in essential analyses by Greil Marcus, Aidan Day, Christopher Ricks, Stephen Scobie, Richard Thomas and more. The last word has not been said—and never will be said—on any number of superb lyrics from the Dylan canon, and it is to be hoped that the post-Nobel reality will also stimulate new and fascinating analyses of Dylan’s lyrics on the page, coming from the other side of the ongoing performance/text divide.

Mondo Scripto, Lyrics and Drawings, Bob Dylan. Halcyon Gallery, London, UK, October 9, 2018 – December 23, 2018.

REVIEW BY Lisa Sanders, St. Peter’s University, NJ

Situated in the heart of one of the poshest spots in Europe, the foundation of the most important American song catalog of the twentieth century hangs uniformly among fifty similarly created and framed pieces. The contrast between Bond Street elegance, and the collection of the most American of American songs is striking, and the contrast proliferates throughout the exhibit. The juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity, of the temporary and the permanent, and of the ordinary life and the posh life are just a few examples.

Dylan quotes are painted on the deep red gallery walls. His view of the nature of art and its defining purpose in life expressed in the 1978 interviews with Rolling Stone and Playboy magazine, an excerpt from the Nobel speech regarding the nature and purpose of songs, and a quote from his autobiography Chronicles regarding his experience of looking for the singers he heard on records, illustrate the depth of some of his ideas. Indeed, the feeling of rich depth is exactly what is captured by the lighting and color inside the gallery. One feels ready to think. And Dylan helps us with our considerations by the uniformity of presentation. Each piece is presented on cream colored paper. Dylan’s handwritten song lyrics are on the left, and on the right, an illustration in pencil. One is immediately drawn to get up close and focus. What’s revealed in doing so is nothing short of astounding.

The exhibit is organized on two floors. Upon entering the ground floor of the gallery, two center columns, one on the left, and one on the right, display seven and nine pieces respectively. These center columns feature masterpieces such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Love Minus Zero – No Limit”, “Don’t Think Twice, (It’s All Right)”, “Masters Of War”, “Song To Woody”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, and others. Seven works are hung on the left outer wall and five pieces are hung on the right outer wall. “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, “Visions Of Johanna”, “Just Like A Woman”, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Positively 4th Street”, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Rainy Day Woman #13 & 35” are some of the featured works. Twenty-three pieces are displayed on the lower ground floor, all hung along the perimeter, including “Hurricane”, “Every Grain Of Sand”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Jokerman”, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist Of Fate”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, “I Shall Be Released”, and “Forever Young”. The “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ series” and “Isis” are hung toward the back of the gallery. Some viewers might prefer having those pieces hung closer to the other masterpieces.

Although the pieces are displayed according to a consistent theme, the interpretation is anything but. And we should expect that–it is Dylan’s art after all. Twenty-nine of the pieces have at least two illustrations, one in the catalog and a different one on display. Some of the songs with multiple illustrations reflect a consistent interpretation. The two illustrations of “Blowin’ In The Wind”, for example, are consistent with the lyrics. The catalog illustration depicts a man on the side of a road staring at a signpost with signs pointing to Wyoming, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada and Montana. The illustration hanging in the gallery depicts a man sitting near a window, covering his ears with his hands, staring straight ahead. Both illustrations make sense. The illustrations for “Hurricane”, on the other hand, are more challenging. The catalog illustration is of a right hand holding a smoking gun with the first finger on the trigger. The illustration on the gallery wall is of a baseball pitcher having just released a pitch. He is in perfect form and the ball is coming directly at us. Baseball and guns, both as American as apple pie. The invitation to dig into the depictions, scratching the surface of the sketches to reveal powerful ideas relating to the interpretation of the songs is compelling.

Mondo Scripto provides an opportunity to explore a new aesthetic of song. As one of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote in his seminal work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound–waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world (4.014).” Through Mondo Scripto, Dylan offers us a translation of his experience of that internal relation, where powerful modes of thought, music, and art are realized into a language that is uniquely his, but one that forcefully relates to our individual worlds. The variations in the Mondo Scripto drawings underscore how Dylan’s art straddles permanence and challenges us to recognize the kind of “waves” Wittgenstein describes. The labile nature of the Mondo Scripto project seems to be Dylan’s reflection on how art functions in giving meaning to human life.

Daryl Sanders. That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville and the Making of Blonde on Blonde. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2019. xvi + 240 pp. $26.99

REVIEW BY Nick Smart, The College of New Rochelle

That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde (2019) is not a commentary on or mere history of the making of Blonde on Blonde (1966). The book’s experiential re-creation of the making of the record manages to improve upon the primary pleasure of listening to Bob, and that’s not an easy trick.

By most standards Thin, Wild Mercury probably won’t rank among the most important Bob Dylan books in the catalog. Sanders relies on sources well known to Dylan criticism for much of the material he marshals, and his intimate connections are mostly with the Nashville musicians who played on the record; he can’t tell you anything you don’t know about Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgwick. There is no gossipy or erudite currency to be gained from this book. But if you’d like to hear more of songs you’ve played a zillion times, or if for some reason you haven’t yet understood why the release of Blonde on Blonde is such an inescapable moment in the history of music, then you’d better call your librarian.

With its title, Thin, Wild Mercury certainly provokes the skeptical Dylan reader. This phrase, Dylan’s own, is so well known to enthusiasts that it seems foolhardy at first for author Daryl Sanders to claim he can contribute to anyone’s understanding of what thin, wild mercury means (no, not what it means, what it sounds like, because its meaning is only its sound) and how Dylan conceived and delivered it. But this guy Sanders, he pulls it off. The distillation of his experience with Nashville’s people and sound, and all the impressions of Dylan he’s collected from first- (and second-) hand witnesses, results in the proof that Blonde on Blonde meets the Wild, Mercury standard to which Dylan retroactively holds it.

For better or for worse (mostly better), Daryl Sanders is a lifer, a Nashville music journalist who has covered Music City scenes and players since the late ‘70s. His feel for the town is put to good use when he recounts anecdotes like Al Kooper’s run-in with street toughs on his way back to the studio from a record shop or an effort to have illegal liquor brought to Studio A as a lubricant for the recording of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” These tasty details, gleaned from interviews with the musicians and made immediate by Sanders’s experience of the scene, give much of the book a gritty and honest atmosphere. Of course, Sanders is also a writer who likes the marquee value of his subject, and has interviewed many major figures including Robert Palmer, Joan Baez, and Tom Petty. Perhaps it is this nearly epic sense of scope that makes him want to fit his take on Blonde on Blonde into more arenas than it should play. Occasionally the density of what Sanders knows deprives the book of focus (like a great song with too many verses?).

Both aspects of this book (unchecked recitation of record label names, locations of minor gigs, antipathies of industry executives, and spot-on storytelling once tape starts rolling in Studio A) are necessary. Together, as in novels and life, the banal and the brilliant create the effect. If you don’t know how old drummer Kenneth Buttery was when he started playing Tennessee roadhouses, your jaw won’t drop far enough at the sound of his brushwork many years and chapters later.

The book provides backstory for anybody who played a note, called a take, snapped a photo, or rode along in a limo with Bob Dylan between July 1965 when Dylan resumes work on Highway 61 Revisited to the day in 1967 when the layout of Blonde on Blonde’s inner sleeve is reconfigured because an Italian starlet doesn’t want her picture in the montage of faces that are mostly Bob’s. It’s possible to feel too carried away by this bloodhound approach, but it will all be worth it when Sanders displays his spellbinding mastery of minutiae by uncovering the shape of the lyrics and the sound of the songs.

This description of some of the takes of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)” is a good example of the payoff:

The second and third verses and the bridge all underwent significant changes between the first take and the sixth, the only complete takes—none of the other four made it past the first verse and the chorus. Dylan also made a key lyrical change in the bridge between the first and final takes, adding “the judge” who “holds a grudge.” The introduction of the judge underscored the reckoning awaiting the woman for what she had done to the man when “time will tell just who has fell and who’s been left behind.

The up-tempo arrangement (in the key of G) developed fairly quickly—it was mostly together on the first take. Between the first and the second takes they settled on the primary melody line, a catchy bluesy riff suggested by McCoy that was repeated in unison by a number of instruments throughout the song.

“There was a little figure after each chorus that he [McCoy] wanted to put in on trumpet, but Dylan was not fond of overdubbing,” Kooper recalled in his memoir. “It was a nice lick, too, Simple, but nice. Now Charlie was already playing bass on that tune. So we started recording, and when that section came up, he picked up the trumpet in his right hand and played the part while he kept the bass going with his left hand without missing a lick in either hand. Dylan stopped in the middle of that and just stared in awe.” (154-155)

These paragraphs show you all of the book’s strength, and another, forgivable, weakness. If you read Thin, Wild Mercury with your headphones on, as I did, Sanders’s detailing of each track’s development will bring you to moments of genuine exhilaration when each song’s full sound is realized. While reading the chunk of Thin, Wild Mercury quoted above, I played “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” over and over, reveling in those trumpet flourishes that showed me the contortion of Charlie McCoy, the band leader who kept all the Nashville musicians working toward the realization of Dylan’s sound, and also Dylan’s face registering McCoy’s sublime contribution. What had once been an undifferentiated aspect of a song I really liked, became a moment of creation I felt in my bones. The palpability of this rendering is a great accomplishment, and it happens often.

Robbie Robertson’s “blistering lead” on “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” might have remained for me just the sound of good guitar playing had I not read Thin, Wild Mercury and overheard the arch-Southern McCoy, telling Robertson (such a Northerner he’s Canadian), “’Robbie, the whole world’ll marry you on that one’” (167). Sanders reanimates the recording sessions by listening to every scrap of raw tape available, reading every book that mentions Blonde on Blonde (that great McCoy line is sourced to Sean Wilentz’s Dylan in America [2011]), and interviewing those Nashville musicians we hear on the record (McCoy insists he never played the trumpet with one hand, but Sanders, with due respect, provides enough evidence that he might have to allow a reader’s startled impression to linger).

So that’s what the section under review, and the book as a whole, do so well, take us to Nashville by way of New York and drop us in the studio with Dylan and the bands. What isn’t as wonderful about the book is apparent in the last line of that first quoted paragraph. Anyone who follows the Never Ending Tour hoping to hear Bob drop a new couplet into “Tangled Up in Blue” is going to love the way Sanders keeps track of Dylan’s on-the-spot revisions. Anyone who does not love to have other listeners tell them what Dylan meant, especially when the proffered meanings are standard and somewhat sexist, is going to take exception with this book from time to time.

Glossing lyrics is not Sanders’ best skill. After he shows how each track of Blonde on Blonde ends up in the can, he often strays from listening and reads the words for an obligatory paragraph or two. His notes rarely improve the experience of the record the way his sterling stories of social and sonic convergence always do. The “fever down in my pocket” on “Absolutely Sweet Marie” refers as well to musical pockets and spiritual containers as to hard evidence of sexual urgency. But because Sanders, like so many explicators of Blonde on Blonde, can’t resist imagining Dylan’s feelings for Edie, Nico, Sarah, or Joan, meanings are frequently overdetermined. But this trap’s jaws catch everyone who writes about Dylan; some struggle more often and less gracefully than others. Sanders quotes many unsatisfactory critical attempts to reduce Dylan songs to stable meanings, or prove they mean nothing. Knowing that Lester Bangs and Clinton Heylin and Jann Wenner don’t deserve the last word on any of this stuff should allow us to just ignore Sanders’s unremarkable effort to render Blonde on Blonde a record about women delivered via the thematic twin engine of “waiting and gates.”

Thin, Wild Mercury does not need to be regarded and shouldn’t pose as the sort of Dylan book in which one available version of some of the songs backstops an author’s view of Dylan as activist, poet, or profligate. No, this book is an example of what English professors call performative rhetoric, an act of speech or writing that enacts the very thing it also describes. Eulogies bury and vows marry and That, Thin Wild Mercury Sound reveals its sonic referent by reverently turning our ears to Blonde on Blonde.

Bob Dylan: Electric. American Writers Museum, Chicago, November 16, 2018-April 30, 2019.

REVIEW BY Kenneth Daley, Columbia College, Chicago

As its title suggests, the primary focus of Bob Dylan: Electric, the exhibit currently on display at Chicago’s American Writers Museum, is 1965, Dylan at Newport and the electric songs of the ‘65 albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s ‘64 Fender Stratocaster, captured in Diana Davies’ iconic photo of Dylan playing Newport 1965, hangs in the center of the exhibit, encased in plastic like a religious relic. Underneath the guitar lies a copy of the ’65 festival program, illustrated by Jonathan Shahn, son of the social realist, and opened to Dylan’s absurdist short story, “Off the Top of My Head.” To its right, headphones offer the exhibit goer a recording of the Newport performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the song from the newly released Back Home that Dylan chose to open the electric set.

The exhibit is relatively small, mounted in a 100-foot long corridor connecting two sides of the Writers Museum, and organized into six sections: Highway 61 Revisited; Influences; Newport Folk Festival, 1965; Don’t Look Back; Dylan’s Impact; Nobel Prize. Curated by rock critic Alan Light, with photos and objects on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bill Pagel, James Irsay (the guitar), and others, the exhibit brings together an entertaining collection of historical artifacts, among them, studio logs, job sheets, and photos from Dylan’s 1965 Columbia recording sessions; a “fair copy” manuscript of Dylan’s hand-printed lyrics to “Tom Thumb’s Blues”; Dylan’s playfully annotated/illustrated copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; a beautiful 1965 painted handbill in orange, blacks, and blues, by Eric Von Schmidt, announcing Joan Baez and Dylan in concert; the opening pages from the original transcript of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film, Don’t Look Back. Each section of the exhibit includes audio or audiovisual components.

Unfortunately, none of this constitutes, in the words of the Museum’s promotional materials, “an unparalleled display of Bob Dylan’s contribution to American music and literature.” That Dylan’s embrace of rock altered American culture is an oft-told tale (two recent attempts, Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric! (2015) and Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), sit at the entrance to the exhibit), and the telling here is only superficial, an introduction to the uninitiated as opposed to anyone even reasonably well acquainted with Dylan’s life and career. Most disappointing is the concluding section of the exhibit devoted to “Dylan’s Impact,” consisting of an oversized selection of banal quotations from well-known musicians (and a few writers) speaking to Dylan’s genius and achievement. “It almost makes me furious sometimes, how good his lyrics are,” says the inspired Dave Matthews from somewhere far on desolation row. “Bob’s songs seemed to update the concepts of justice and injustice,” Joan Baez helpfully chimes in. Headphones are lined up along the lower portion of the wall offering audio clips of various artists covering Dylan songs, in case you’ve missed Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, or find Miley Cyrus’s rendition of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go compelling evidence of Dylan’s vital contribution to American music.

Even weaker is the exhibit’s treatment of Dylan’s contribution to American literature. The Nobel Prize section is merely an exercise in hagiography, a collection of newspaper headlines and a gold-embossed invitation to the award ceremony. The script of Dylan’s lecture and the full twenty-seven-minute recording that he cannily set to music are made available absent any analysis of Dylan’s place in the vernacular American tradition of songwriting, or any interrogation of the relationship of song to literature. Copies of Moby-DickThe Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front, classic literary texts that Dylan singles out as having informed his music, dutifully sit on a shelf along the wall. So nearby sit copies of the 2016 edition of The Lyrics: 1961-2012, and Chronicles: Volume One (2004). Tarantula, Dylan’s 1971 collection of prose poems, is represented only by a picture of its front cover. The out-of-print 1973 Writings and Drawings is not represented at all, nor any of Dylan’s other early publications — “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the prose poems printed on the back of the 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’; “Some Other Kinds of Songs…Poems by Bob Dylan,” printed in the jacket notes of the other 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan; the columns Dylan penned for the short-lived, folk-song magazine, Hootenanny; the open letter to friends in Broadside.

Except for “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the exhibit includes no manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks, or any other archival materials that would lend insight into Dylan’s composing process or literary contributions. There is nothing here on loan from The Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, the resource most likely to provide the materials necessary to craft the definitive display of Dylan’s contribution to American music and literature. But if you find yourself in Chicago, Bob Dylan: Electric offers a pleasant enough hour among Dylan memorabilia and photographs, some of which you very well may never have seen before.