The film actress Kay Francis, reputedly the highest paid female star at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, once told an interviewer, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.” She has all but gotten her wish, since few can imagine Kay Francis was more of a box office draw than Bette Davis until 1938 (the year of Jezebel).

Unlike Kay Francis, celebrities usually want the opposite: to be remembered well past their sell-by date. There’s even a film about it, Sunset Boulevard, as complex a mixing of art and life as the medium ever offered (Gloria Swanson, a genuinely forgotten silent-screen idol plays a silent-screen idol whose servant is her old director, Max Von Stroheim, who was in fact a celebrated German silent-film director.) Not quite Don Quixote, but more than enough layering for a two-hour on-screen performance where you can’t turn back the pages.

John Milton called fame the “last infirmity of mortal man.” He was referring to poets seeking a permanent place in the literary firmament. This same infirmity still afflicts poets and writers hoping their work will last. Even when they are not literary celebrities, they would rather not be forgotten. There are exceptions, of course: the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne refused to publish even his less saucy verse. Now considered one of the finest lyrical poets in any language, Donne and his work sank from sight for more than two centuries. No one cited him in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson did not include him in the Lives of the Poets, despite including such seventeenth-century giants as Wentworth Dillon (Earl of Roscommon), Thomas Otway, and George Stepney. Johnson also excluded all women poets, so Donne was in good company in terms of neglect. But the neglect meant that the Romantics didn’t read him, and Donne had no influence whatever on nineteenth-century authors like Tennyson, Whitman, or Dickinson.

Not until Herbert Grierson, a scholar, published his Oxford edition of John Donne did the poet’s fortunes begin to change. Grierson’s edition was reviewed by no less a celebrity than T.S. Eliot, and Donne’s brilliance shined from under the bushel.

But this is a rare, quirky emergence in the realm of literary culture. As the late Harold Bloom often pointed out, poets make the canon, not editors, professors, readers, or even Amazon. Earlier poems chosen by later poets — “belated,” in Bloom’s vocabulary — serve as models to be imitated, stolen from, reworked, or parodied. This is a cumulative process of formation, since those later poets in turn become the objects of imitation. All these imitated works come inescapably to make up the canon because, to read and study later poets, we must study the works that influenced them.

There are other ways to conceive of canon formation, including discovery-and-recovery missions like Grierson’s, but charting the influence of earlier poets is unavoidable. Walter Jackson Bate called this “the burden of the past.”

Will Bob Dylan’s influence survive as a “burden” on future generations? Will he, in the future, become an unavoidable figure of the American poetic and musical past? Is he already a canonical figure, or is there work to be done, Grierson-style? The Nobel Prize is no guarantee of a place in the literary firmament, as Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, and (probably) John Steinbeck would testify.

Popular music presents an even trickier problem than literary works. Songs from earlier eras only outlast their first popularizers in nostalgic covers, or, rarely, as with the “standards,” in a new improvisatory art form like jazz.

So where does this leave Dylan’s songs? It’s difficult to imagine what demographic will be strumming “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” in twenty, thirty, fifty years (is there a generation of acoustic guitarists playing those songs even now?). Will there be rock ‘n’ roll bands reviving “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” or “Not Dark Yet”? Given the direction of popular music, this kind of revival seems unlikely.

And what about the Dylan imitators? They used to be legion. Dylan’s phrasing and style, diction, even his inimitable voice demonstrably influenced a generation of guitar players and songwriters. The term Dylanesque became descriptive currency, referring not only to singing and songwriting, but also to something beyond music, an elusive, utterly distinct posture. But would a Dylanesque effort be recognizable today? What would it take for that characteristic to survive? More significantly, can anyone other than Dylan be Dylanesque successfully, or does the term a fortiori indicate a failure to create a personal musical style and distinctive posture? This latter alternative further confirms the threat of obscurity in Dylan’s future.


Ergo, maybe this 80th birthday year—hailed as a milestone by some, dismissed as a non-event by others—should get us wondering. Not wondering if Dylan will endure, but how we can make it happen. Because no one has ever survived without some help, whether from imitators or editors.

Here’s a curious fact. Despite all the voluminous attention Dylan has received, all the interpretation, poring-over, contextualization, and microscopic critical appraisal—and Christopher Ricks’s monumental The Lyrics: Since 1962, which includes variants of the songs. Despite all that, there hasn’t yet been an annotated edition of Dylan’s lyrics. That is, an edition with commentary and interpretation, along the lines of the Yale Milton or the Oxford Ben Jonson or even, more modestly, the myriad Shakespeare textbook editions.

Maybe this gap in Dylan studies is a result of copyright restrictions. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re toying with canonical survival. It’s all well and good to sneer about infinity going up on trial, or to impute permanence to works we deem unsurpassable. But are we tempting fate to think song lyrics live in the music and die in explications on the page?

There have been translations of the lyrics, most notably into Italian and French. And there are footnotes galore in sixty years of articles and books. But no sifting and collocation has emerged in the form of a single edition designed, at least in part, for future listeners (and readers). This is a desideratum. For example, an annotated edition might include this kind of information:



* 4th Street an east-west running street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a quarter known for its bohemian inhabitants and, during the 1960s, home to cafes and folk clubs. Dylan owned a house on 4th Street.



Inside the museum,* infinity goes up on trial

* museum private or public building that cares for or conserves artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance; curates exhibitions for viewing audiences who walk through the galleries at their own pace.

Don’t laugh: before about 1800, the word museum referred to Greco-Roman temples. Scores of other Dylan lines come to mind, many of which, even today, might benefit from annotation. 



And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels* of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind

* skippin’ reels a) a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the state-of-the-art technology in the 1960s, both in studios and for home recordings; b) a traditional dance, e.g., the Highland Reel.


It’s all well and good to eschew becoming self-ordained professors’ tongues. And it’s certainly a blast to debate interpretations on Einstein “sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet,” or the importance of the “13th-century poet,” or why the trial’s “in a Sicilian court.” Not that these debates should stop — on the contrary, poetry and criticism grow together like the rose and the briar. But hermeneutics alone won’t preserve Dylan. Soon enough, it will be necessary to define Bette Davis, now probably almost as obscure as Kay Francis. And other basic definitions will be called for: what are electric violins, for instance, where’s Montagu Street, what exactly is “a topless place,” who were “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” (not to mention “Louie and Jimmy and Buddy”), and what about “the land of Oz”?  This is not pedantry. It’s preservation. Dylan’s 80th birthday might not be a genuine climacteric. But perhaps we should use it as a bourne at the roadside, a marker to urge selfless planning for future listeners to the music, future readers of the lyrics, future scholars — future Dylanistas.

– RF

The back page of the British journal TLS (The Times Literary Supplement) featured, until very recently, a column by J.C. Over the years this column included some paragraphs reflecting on Writers More or Less Forgotten—writers who, J.C. reminds his readers with a determinedly light touch, are to be distinguished from writers “unjustly overlooked.”[1] A fine point, but one worth keeping in mind. Granted, the categories are porous, subjective, but this was their secret strength. They encouraged simultaneous expansion and delimitation, allowing J.C.’s periodic review of the canon to shine a torch into the dim library stacks of the literary past and drag many half-forgotten authors into the light.

Can we apply similar categories to Dylan’s work? Would gratifying rediscoveries emerge if we adapted J.C.’s categories, substituting the word “Songs” for “Writers”? I think they might. Maybe in dribbles, maybe in droves, Songs More or Less Forgotten and Songs Unjustly Overlooked might teeter into the light. I have a few candidates for these categories—who doesn’t? But, still, I should offer a (perhaps unnecessary) disclaimer: my nominations depend entirely on where, in the moment, I think the obscurity begins. Long ago, in the liner notes to Freewheelin’, Nat Hentoff quoted Dylan on “Blowin’ in the Wind:” “The first way to answer these questions in the song is by asking them. But lots of people have to first find the wind.” Let me borrow that thought: to determine which songs, More or Less Forgotten, should emerge from the darkness into the light, first you have to find the darkness.

But even before doing that—before separating the light from our highly subjective darknesses—it’s advisable to make a slightly different distinction between Songs More or Less Forgotten and Songs Best Forgotten. Most longtime listeners have managed to compile lists of these songs—lists that read like FBI dossiers of crimes against the canon. Predictably, no two lists match, and, perhaps fortunately, there could never be perfect agreement on which songs are Best Forgotten (although the mid-‘80s output seems to get the majority vote). The Dylan literature is chock-a-block with heated debates attacking and defending songs heard by one group as Dylan’s nadir and by another as close to his zenith. Where the former finds only detritus, the latter uncovers hidden gems. But, ironically, by the very nature of public debate, these Best Forgotten songs tend to be more prominent than many others—among the six-hundred-plus—that have simply flown for decades under the radar.

There are examples, too, of infamous performances, live or in the studio, that are Best Forgotten. And sometimes when the studio recordings and album cuts are Best Forgotten, subterranean favorites surface in live performances: e.g., the largely vilified studio outtake of “Abandoned Love” (Biograph) superseded by the live version, recorded at the Bitter End by an audience member (and available on YouTube), in which the voice, timing, and humor of Bob Dylan come through with authority.

Best Forgotten Songs and Performances Best Forgotten, in all their variants, stand apart from Songs More or Less Forgotten. Less distant, however, is the subcategory of neglected or overlooked songs that became part of the popular canon precisely because they were neglected or overlooked. In my view, three of the most renowned of these are the stunning “Percy’s Song,” an acoustic masterpiece that received heavy radio play over the years, the impossibly brilliant “Blind Willie McTell,” now canonized though originally excluded from Infidels, and “Up to Me,” an outtake from Blood on the Tracks. To take the last one, most critics highlight the excision of “Up to Me” as a spectacular blunder. Yet, ironically, the very notoriety of its outtake status has brought more attention to “Up to Me” than to many officially released songs. As with “Percy’s Song,” of course, and even more so “Blind Willie McTell,” this attention is deserved—these are simply better songs and better recorded performances than many included on the albums. But valorization notwithstanding, they still fall into the subcategory of songs canonized because they were neglected.

Songs More or Less Forgotten, then, shouldn’t enjoy the same visibility as Best Forgotten Compositions/Performances or Notoriously Neglected Songs. Instead, to be More or Less Forgotten, a song must break the surface of the waters of oblivion. This happens from time to time, accomplished not so much by a new old song on Dylan’s concert playlist (“Lenny Bruce,” anyone?) as by an enterprising artist covering a Dylan rarity. And in this subcategory, too, we all have our preferences. One of mine: Chris Smither, with his searing guitar and lean baritone, in a brave cover of “What Was It You Wanted?” (Up on the Lowdown)—brave, because the song is tailored for the virtuoso contempt of Dylan’s vocal. And brave, too, because only initiates would even know it was a Dylan song, let alone one from Oh Mercy (an album More or Less Unknown to the timid pilgrims who fear to tread into the Slough of Eighties Despond).

This welter of categories and subcategories makes me wonder: is there a hidden economy of song suppression? Might there be a secret ecology of neglect patterning songs More or Less Forgotten? Or is it just vogue? This last possibility reminds me of the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt, who, reflecting on a lover’s fickleness at Henry VIII’s court, speaks of “a strange fashion of forsaking.” No doubt, forsaking is part of the phenomenon, and it must be a fashion of forsaking foundationed deep for great songs to become More or Less Forgotten. But is it merely fashion? Music-company economics of A- and B-sided singles—back when such quaint things existed—might have contributed to the suppression of certain songs in the first flush of an album’s release. But Dylan singles almost never overshadow Dylan albums. Not even “Like a Rolling Stone,” a top-ten hit, could obscure “Desolation Row,” “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” On the contrary, like all the ‘60s albums (as well as Blood on the TracksDesire, and InfidelsHighway 61 Revisited harbors no song More or Less Forgotten. And, remarkably, this kind of assimilation doesn’t stop way back when. The Time Out of Mind“Love and Theft”Modern Times trilogy (if it is a trilogy) reprises—almost but not quite—that same ‘60s comprehensiveness.[2]

All those albums are systemically present in the mind of any Dylanista. They are, as Roland Barthes says about language, “nothing but a human horizon which provides a distant setting of familiarity” (his italics). If we think of those comprehensively known albums as constituting a song-system, a horizon of familiarity, then songs More or Less Forgotten would have to pierce that horizon to change their status and to alter their effect on the song-system.

Allow me a digression to back this up. In his Cours de linguistique général, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure divided language into two distinct categories: the first he called langue, a kind of floating totality or system of conventions; the second he called parole, the real-time utterances by speakers. Langue, as Jonathan Culler explains, “is a system, an institution, a set of interpersonal rules and norms, while [parole] comprises the actual manifestations of the system in speech and writing.” And, bringing it all back home, Culler adds, “to learn English is not to memorize a set of utterances; it is to master a system of rules and norms which make it possible to . . . understand utterances. To know English is to have assimilated the system of language.”

Devoted, longtime Dylan followers have assimilated a kind of langue of early songs, almost like a system of linguistic conventions. New performances of those songs act as real-time utterances—parole—separate from the established Dylan songs. To have assimilated this institutional totality is to know the Dylan langue, as a native speaker would know English or Portuguese, Urdu or Igbo. No song from this langue could ever be More or Less Forgotten because memory isn’t really part of the process. To know Dylan in this way is equivalent to having assimilated the rules and norms of a language-system—or maybe a “song-system.”

Some songs never rise to the level of assimilation and are therefore never incorporated into the song-system, the Dylan langue. These songs are in the canon, of course, ready to be used by other artists, while proving to be convenient sources of annoyance for critics on the hunt for new talking points. And many of these songs are hiding in plain sight among the six-hundred-plus. Three personal candidates: “New Pony” (Street-Legal), “I’ll Remember You” (Empire Burlesque), and, very tentatively, “Cry a While” (from “Love and Theft”—an album replete with songs which were rapidly absorbed into the langue).

Sometimes pertinent songs fail to intersect the horizon, falling short of becoming part of the “distant setting of familiarity.” This happens even when an intersection would be timely, with practical ramifications. It seems to me there might have been a lot less handwringing about Dylan’s delay in accepting the Nobel Prize if “Day of the Locusts” (New Morning) had been assimilated into the song-system, accompanied by the autobiographical interpretation of the lyrics.[3] Like “Love and Theft,” New Morning has been almost fully absorbed into the langue. Only “Day of the Locusts” and “Three Angels” seem to have “more or less” slipped through the cracks.

But the cracks themselves, like the darkness I mentioned earlier, appear differently to every Dylanista. Even my list of categories is fungible (and, certainly, J.C. shouldn’t be held accountable for, nor is it likely he’d approve of, the taxonomical fragmentation I’ve wrought on the original Writers More or Less Forgotten). The few songs I’ve mentioned as More or Less Forgotten could be multiplied many times over, but any list I made, long or short, would still be subjective and patently unverifiable. Yet I suppose that’s the point of porous, subjective categories. While some people would strenuously object to my choice of songs, others might add to the list and cite songs they consider fully present in the song-system that seem to me to be outside the Dylan “institution.” And still others might altogether deny the existence of a langue-like capacity in Dylan studies. But these different reactions would confirm, rather than obviate, the phenomenon of Songs More or Less Forgotten, which makes me wonder if songs good and great will continue to languish More or Less Forgotten. And I wonder, too, if those songs, should they escape from the shadows, will successfully merge with the Dylan langue, breaching the horizon of familiarity. It’s hard to say. You can always bring them back, but can you bring them back all the way?

– RF

[1] For the last installment of Writers More or Less Forgotten (numbered Part VII), see September 4, 2020. [J]ames [C]ampbell stopped writing the NB column on September 18, 2020. The back page of the TLS is currently being written by M.C., but there’s been no hint that this new columnist will extend J.C.’s literary themes into the journal’s future issues.

[2] In a Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Lethem (9/7/2006), Dylan “disincluded” Time Out of Mind from a possible trilogy: “Time Out of Mind was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner. But by the time I made Love and Theft [sic], I was out of the corner. On this record, I ain’t nowhere, you can’t find me anywhere, because I’m way gone from the corner . . . I would think more of Love and Theft [sic] as the beginning of a trilogy, if there’s going to be a trilogy.” If “this record” is Modern Times, then the reconstructed trilogy would be “Love and Theft”Modern TimesTogether Through Life. And what about Tempest? An outlier? Who saw a trilogy in the first place? A critic? Now is the time for your tears.

[3] In 1970, Princeton University awarded Dylan a Doctorate in Music honoris causa. If “Day of the Locusts” is a response to that event, as critics suggest, then the apocalyptic indictment of the ceremony and the fictional speaker’s escape from the scene might have given a hint about Dylan’s feelings toward academic honors and the academically inclined Nobel committee. This attitude toward a prize is puzzling, certainly, since Dylan didn’t seem to have any hesitation in accepting the American Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor, or induction as an honorary member in the American Academy of Arts and Letters—not to mention countless music awards.

Dylan’s recent interview with Douglas Brinkley published in the New York Times reminded me of the Wallace Stevens lines, “You must become an ignorant man again / And see the sun with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it” (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”). The occasion of the interview was the forthcoming Rough and Rowdy Ways, but Brinkley managed to touch on other subjects including nostalgia, technology, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and “the long strange trip of the naked ape.” Dylan seemed straightforward during the interview, thoughtful and alert to the nuances of Brinkley’s questions. It’s one of those Dylan interviews that somehow neutralize one’s skepticism about his notoriously enigmatic answers in earlier interviews.

For sixty years Dylan has taken interviewers (and the rest of us) on a rollercoaster ride up steep crests and down dizzying plunges of wild fabrication, good-humored whimsy, aggression, impertinence, candor, insouciance, cunning, guardedness, personal religion, unexpected musical tastes, and seemingly unshakeable allegiances. It has seemed as though, to understand or believe him, one “must become an ignorant man [or woman] again,” as if seeing the same sun “with an ignorant eye.” Dylan has frequently answered the same questions (thanks to indefatigably stubborn interviewers) in different ways, leaving us flatfooted interpreters in a state one might describe as learned ignorance. Interviewers, meanwhile, have appeared by turns (and sometimes in the same interview) gullible, incredulous, erudite and scrupulous, staggeringly uninformed, probing, humbled, fawning, canny, contemptuous, or manipulated.

Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” has now been officially cathected onto Dylan’s lyric persona. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The interviewee Bob Dylan has contained multitudes at least since he informed Cynthia Gooding in 1962 on public radio that, on one hand, he’d traveled “with the carnival off and on six years,” and that, on the other, he was more than just a singer of folk music. As he added, with remarkable insight: “A lot of people, they’re just folk music, folk music, folk music. I like folk music . . . but I don’t sing much of that, and when I do it’s probably a modified version of something. Not a modified version; I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just there’s more to it I think.” The capaciousness of an interview that ranges from wanderlust fantasies to probing introspection can’t be ignored, even if the fantastical dimension does have a tendency to undermine Dylan’s prophetic understanding of his own performances as more than folk music, as “a modified version of something.”

The same extremes occurred throughout the decades. Fifty years later, in the now-celebrated, and panoramic, 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone Magazine, Dylan at one point talks about what he calls “transfiguration” and refers cryptically to the 1964 death of a Hell’s Angel called Bobby Zimmerman. Gilmore tries to pin Dylan down on transfiguration—”By transfiguration . . . do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?”—but Dylan rejects transmigration. He offers instead: “I had a motorcycle accident in 1966. I already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want.” And then he adds a genuinely weird comment:

You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept . . . you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation—or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future. So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist.

Huh? One is tempted to laugh this off as an earnest interviewer’s nightmare—the abracadabra disappearance of the interviewee who’s facing you. Or maybe the reverse is true: maybe it’s the interviewer’s dream answer, a gold strike of Dylan’s personal occultism.

In either case, while the transfiguration theory might sound less than comprehensible to some of us—not everyone, however: see, for example, Richard Thomas’s brilliant take on transfiguration in his article in this issue—Dylan’s answers to other questions during the Gilmore interview were focused and crystal clear. Gilmore pressed him on his view of history and Dylan replied with acute insight (and with prescience, given our contemporary moment):

GILMORE: Do you see any parallels between the 1860s and present-day America?

DYLAN: Mmm, I don’t know how to put it. It’s like . . . the United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery. The USA wouldn’t give it up. It had to be grinded out. The whole system had to be ripped out with force. A lot of killing. What, like, 500,000 people? A lot of destruction to end slavery. And that’s what it really was all about. This country is just too fucked up about color. It’s a distraction. People at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back—or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery—that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood. It’s doubtful that America’s ever going to get rid of that stigmatization. It’s a country founded on the backs of slaves. You know what I mean? Because it goes way back. It’s the root cause. If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today.

Others have said similar things, not least James Baldwin, a writer Dylan read. And Dylan doesn’t mention the founding genocide of Native Americans. But the sheer, shattering realness of his answer and his keen eye for racist stigma (“I saw a black branch . . . ”) clash with the magpie mysticism of the transfiguration answer. Does the former neutralize the credibility of the latter? Or can we, as practiced Dylan-watchers, distinguish the valuable bits from the dross (if it is dross). Can we disentangle the solid ethical architecture from the experimental flux? You’d think we’d be surfeited, at this late stage in the proceedings, with such polarized inconsistencies—that even the most dedicated thrill-seeker would have had enough of the rollercoaster ride.

And yet we hunger for more. We read on, or listen to “live” interviews, privately building dossiers and forming composite BDs from what we believe, half-believe, want to believe, and suppose Dylan believes when he answers interviewers’ questions. Are his answers important? Absolutely not, because the songs are what matters. Are his answers important? Absolutely yes—because the songs are what matters. We might be as skeptical of Dylan’s self-analysis as we are of any artist’s. We might have our doubts about Dylan’s worldview: it’s too vague on the details, it lacks political sophistication, his deity impinges, ethos overshadows praxis. But still we need to hear what Dylan has to say: every interview we read or hear, stemming from the earliest press conferences and live radio to the recent filmed versions and even the Nobel lecture—in other words, every incremental stepping stone of Dylan’s career—now bears the colossally oppressive weight of his 600 songs. The fact of that artistic achievement and of Dylan’s cultural authority (the “voice-of-a-generation” millstone of the sixties) makes deciphering the interviews a desideratum for any . . . well, for any Dylanista.

Which brings me back to the Brinkley interview. Toward the end of the interchange, Brinkley asked a question that I took to be almost pro forma, one to which everybody already knew the answer (or so I thought):

BRINKLEY: What role does improvisation play in your music?

DYLAN: None at all. There’s no way you can change the nature of a song once you’ve invented it. You can set different guitar or piano patterns upon the structural lines and go from there, but that’s not improvisation. Improvisation leaves you open to good or bad performances and the idea is to stay consistent. You basically play the same thing time after time in the most perfect way you can.

None at all? Improvisation plays no role whatever in Dylan’s performances? This response floored me. Allen Ginsberg associated improvisation with spontaneity, calling them “the whole point of modern poetry.” Daniel Belgrad, in Culture and Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, points out that “although rock was not the music that had originally developed in connection with the culture of spontaneity, in many ways it partook of the spontaneous aesthetic. Rock lyrics were often written as spontaneous poetry, as with Bob Dylan’s 1965 underground classic, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’”

Until the Brinkley interview I might have agreed with Belgrad (in a qualified way). When I think about Dylan’s performances, scores of what seem spontaneously altered verses come to mind, including famous bootleg recordings and countless songs barely recognizable once they’ve been taken from the studio to the stage. And, as is well known, this “spontaneous poetry” seemed real enough to attract dissenters. Every concert had its phalanx of fans begging Bobby to play the songs the way they knew them from the records, the way he first wrote and sang them. They seemed to think he was improvising, and they disapproved (sometimes becoming quite exercised about it).

But evidently Dylan doesn’t improvise. He can sing, on Real Live,

Headin’ out for the old East Coast

Radio blastin’ the news straight on through

Tangled up in blue

instead of the Blood on the Tracks version,

Heading out for the East Coast

Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through

Tangled up in blue.

But this is not improvisation. This is categorically not part of Ginsberg’s or Belgrad’s spontaneous aesthetic. If we are to believe Dylan’s response to Brinkley—and I do believe it, despite the humming of the rollercoaster wheels in the background—then the lyrical change retains and protects the inalterable nature of the song. If I understand correctly, Dylan won’t risk improvisation because that would open the door to good or bad performances and he needs to stay consistent—either because the songs as they were written can’t be changed or because they mean so much to him in their original nature. In every performance of every song, then, as different as the songs might sound to us, Dylan delivers unchanged versions. He plays “the same thing time after time in the most perfect way.” The word “perfect” means “complete” in Latin, and what Dylan is telling us is that every song is always already complete, finished at its core, and his performances strive to repeat that complete (or perfect) version.

But it would be literary naiveté to suggest Dylan is unique in altering his supposedly complete works. There’s Henry James, for instance, whose famous revisions (according to Henrician stalwarts) didn’t affect the perfection of the novels. Closer to home, perhaps, is Walt Whitman. Often compared to Dylan as a vatic influence and as an American proto-Guthrie original, Whitman added many lines to Leaves of Grass but kept the essence of that long poem unchanged—the “Me Myself” core.

I’ve always thought I heard improvisation in Dylan’s performances, brilliant flashes of spontaneity—and I’ve thrilled in recognizing and comparing the differences from the original. But maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong side of the song, to the superficial side. Maybe what I’ve been hearing is Dylan’s style of Whitmanian rewriting. That would mean I should be listening not for what seems different, but for what is unchanged.

I’ve also thought I was beyond surprises from Dylan interviews, and far past credulity. Yet there’s something irresistible in the idea that Dylan’s performances are consistent despite their appearance of inconsistency, as if in the interviews, too, Dylan hewed to a Whitmanian model. Or an Emersonian one—“consistency,” Emerson remarked, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Dylan doesn’t trust improvisation, it would seem, because there’s too much at stake in his art to improvise. He can change his songs—rewrite, revise, and restructure them—but the core invention remains the same. He told us long ago (in an interview, predictably) that he’s just a song and dance man. I wonder: might he not have been characterizing his performance in the interview—and in the many yet to come—as much as he was describing his performances on stage? This idea would bring us full circle. Dylan’s “inconsistencies” in the interviews, like the living revisions of his performed songs, are not improvised. They are dances, like Whitman’s, around one core topic, with the tangents and even the fabulist’s wanderings, protecting the perfection of an artist who is who he is despite the labels interviewers and audiences try to attach to him (folk singer, carnival roustabout, poet, painter, rock star, Nobel Laureate). On a typescript draft of liner notes for World Gone Wrong, there’s a bit of telling marginalia: Dylan reports that Billy Joel had visited him backstage, wondering why there weren’t notes explaining his songs anymore. There’s no record of what he said to Billy Joel, but he jotted the remark, “as if the whole story isn’t in the delivery.”

Dylan asks us, the folks experiencing his “delivery,” to listen to him at the moment that he is speaking or singing, without comparing what he’s speaking or singing to some past iteration of himself or the song. He asks us to become ignorant again every time, “And see the sun with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it.” This is his “eternal circle.”

And the song it is long, but it has to get done.

– RF

Right now, in the fury of the moment, it would take Linnaeus to untangle and classify the infinite variety of Dylan scholars. We could spend an amusing afternoon paging through a Species hominum litteris Dylani eruditorum, identifying familiar, not so familiar, and positively bizarre kinds. But a taxonomy alone, regardless of its categorizing properties (and its entertainment value), wouldn’t give us any idea of the future course of Dylan scholarship. In fact, ironically, by tracing, grouping, listing, and labeling all the extant types, while maybe resolving confusion on one hand, would, on the other, create a mystery all its own: that is, which species of homo litteris Dylani eruditus, what particular kind of Dylan scholar, will survive?

Once upon a time, or so we’re told, people would perform Sortes to predict the future. They would choose a sacred book or a literary classic like The Aeneid and open it to a random page. Then they’d toss a talismanic object like, say, a skeleton key, onto the open page. The exact passage where the key landed was considered prophetic, revealing the future of the key-tosser. An unlikely legend has it the Emperor Constantine used Sortes Vergilianae to make decisions about military strategy. And in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene tries Sortes Bibliae to choose between two suitors for her hand (and we know where that got her).

But still, maybe trying Sortes would be apt for predicting the fate of Jack Fate scholarship. We could toss a D# Blues Harp onto a randomly opened page of our new Species and reveal the future Dylan scholar where the harmonica lands. Would it be the Obsessive Encyclopedist? Or the Eschewer of Footnotes, a Harold Bloom of Dylan critics? Or perhaps the key would land on the page containing that rare thing, the Performance Historian? Or would it be the Indefatigable Biographical Interpreter? The New Hermeneuticist? Or maybe the Musicologist, also an inexplicably rare specimen in Dylan studies? Or, mirabile dictu, would the Prosodist finally emerge from the shadows?

I don’t mean to be glib—or not just glib—and I realize that all the above categories can be combined, in whole or in part. Nevertheless, a Silver Age of scholarship seems increasingly to be replacing what will no doubt be regarded as the Golden Age of Dylan studies: according to Ovid, there was no law or punishment, and there were no judges, in the Golden Age. But with the Silver Age, technology came into the world, along with rules and hardship (“the oxen struggled”).

As eyewitnesses fade away and the fan base shifts to those who can legitimately say “I wasn’t there,” archivists and researchers increase in value. There have always been hoarders, collectors, and secret traders of Dylanalia. But the systematic gathering and cataloguing of collections only recently began—the reviewing of Dylan’s notebooks and scribbled songs, unseen photographs, matchbook rhymes, unreleased recordings, cached draft lyrics, letters, postcards, and pen-and-ink doodles. This systematizing is the harbinger of Silver-Age technology. It’s a new morning, and, predictably, the locusts are singing (or swarming). New legal strictures have appeared. And, with the imprimatur of academic affiliation, the judges of peer-review have all but replaced the lawless brilliance of Golden Age authors. The newly entitled scholarly community has developed a distinct skepticism for what Walter Pater called “appreciations.”

On one hand, this is all to the good. I am, after all, writing this column for the Dylan Review, a journal manifestly, and by credo, scholarly. And, presumably without coercion, you’ve chosen to read this new journal committed to Silver-Age peer-reviewing and the technologies inseparable from erudition, research, and scholarly writing on Bob Dylan.

On the other hand, however—if I can argue briefly in utramque partem—is this progress? I wonder. I wonder if there’ll be a price to pay for going through things twice. Consider the case of the visual arts. The Golden Age of connoisseurship in art criticism—more learned perhaps than the Dylan Siglo de oro—was nonetheless pushed aside by the arrival of pedigreed art historians flaunting PhDs. The museums’ notorious infinity-salvation problem fell into the tight grip of academic scholarship. “Appreciations” and essayistic forays, written by now-controversial connoisseurs, soon disappeared from learned journals. The times were different, but I wonder: is this a cautionary tale for Dylan studies?

A Yeats poem, “The Scholars,” comes to mind:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins

Old, learned, respectable bald heads

Edit and annotate the lines

That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair

To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;

All wear the carpet with their shoes;

All think what other people think;

All know the man their neighbour knows.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk that way?

What would we say, as scholars, should our Catullus walk our way? And how would we say it? Yeats, a poet, sees little hope for closing the gap between poetry and scholarship. He mocks the old scholars: their staid respectability owes everything, paradoxically, to young men tossing on their beds “in love’s despair.” He laughs at their uniformity and purblind annotations. Something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

Yeats’s scenario reminds me of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. The guilt-ridden, embittered Charlie Citrine is asked by an eager graduate student what he thought about his late friend, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher (a thinly disguised Delmore Schwartz). Citrine replies mercilessly, “I think the dead owe us a living.”

But do they? Or is it the other way around? I think Yeats is half-wrong and Charlie Citrine has inverted the question. It isn’t what they owe us—dead or alive—but what we, as critics, owe them. Scholars might need a biographical reality-check from time to time, as Yeats too-scornfully reminds us, but the work is the thing. Critical tact and scholarly detachment defeat familiarity, sad as that might seem to all of us who feel a personal connection to Dylan’s voice and songs. But our ongoing debt is to Dylan’s oeuvre, his collected work, regardless of how broadly we define that work.  The ideal Dylan scholar won’t “think what other people think,” I hope, but won’t fall into the flesh-and-blood trap either. I hope, instead, she’ll combine critical erudition and learned speculation with a hint of Golden-Age vision.

Imagine if the D# Blues Harp landed on a scholar like that in the Species.

– RF

I know something is happening, but, honestly, I don’t know what it is. This is quite a moment, a climacteric in Dylan studies. Thanks in large measure to the imprimatur of the Nobel Prize, the academic institutionalization of Bob Dylan has begun in earnest. A transition is underway from the unshored fragments of the old tribalism toward—perhaps—the dream of a new cohesion. After twenty centuries of stony sleep, a Bob Dylan bureaucracy seems to be gathering force. The carpet is moving. Can a Bob Dylan Society, with a President and elected officers, be far off?

Let’s just concentrate on Tulsa, Oklahoma, the New Bethlehem of Dylan studies. Established in 2016, and still growing, The Bob Dylan Archive is housed at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. The Archive librarians are cataloguing thousands of items, including song manuscripts, personal notebooks, recordings, photographs, and films. Scholars (who must make appointments in advance and justify their interest in written applications) are lining up to use the reading room. Has a new anthropological era dawned? So it would seem. All the hunter-gatherers who have tracked and chased down Dylan material across the savanna for all these past years can now settle down to a bottomless trove collected in a single place. But caveat emptor. The Presidential Library aspect of the The Bob Dylan Archive gives the misleading impression of completeness. And I’m not referring to completism, that abhorred disease, merely to a delimitation, and if I can quote Spinoza without seeming too pedantic, Omnis determinatio est negatio (“every definition is also an exclusion”). There’s no question the Archive’s collation will be an indispensable resource, but I hope it never becomes the exclusive definition of Dylan studies. May we stay forever (a bit) Neolithic.

Back to Tulsa. The Tulsa University Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, according to their website, “is one component of a three-part collaboration that includes The Bob Dylan Archive at the Helmerich Center for American Research and the George Kaiser Family Foundation.” The Kaiser Family Foundation, we are told, is “in the process of designing and building the Bob Dylan Center, which will be located in downtown Tulsa’s vibrant Arts District. It will be the outward-facing dimension of this partnership.” Bristling with bureaucratic ambition, and with deep pockets to boot, this tripartite collaboration seems tantamount to a Bob Dylan hegemony in statu nascendi.

Am I the only one amused by the words “institute” and “Bob Dylan” in the same title? Or should I wipe the smile off my face? Maybe I’m missing the warning signals, a falconer out of earshot of his falcon. Maybe we’re all witnessing a rough beast shifting across the Oklahoma hills to be born.

As the poet says, “Time will tell who has fell and who’s been left behind.” This new journal, the Dylan Review, should take that lyric to heart—not as a creed but as an aspiration. We should let the others go their way while we go ours, determined neither to be left behind nor to move in tandem with the academic bureaucratization.

The Dylan Review is only the most recent of many magazines and journals on Bob Dylan. We honor those who came before and recognize our debt. Yet things have changed and are changing. Our scholarly mission grows from the organized academic interest in Dylan that has spread during the last few years. International, well-funded Dylan conferences pop up regularly in Europe—in Berlin and Lisbon, for instance—and, like the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies’ “The World of Bob Dylan Symposium,” these gatherings have attracted hundreds of participants. Scholarly papers and thematic sessions have multiplied exponentially, demonstrating all the nuanced criticism and theoretical analysis expected of a large-scale 21st-century academic meeting. And this efflorescence of sophisticated criticism, this mania for organizational parity between Dylan and other major figures of the curriculum, has profited a host of neglected disciplines, not least musicology, ethics, versification, and even classics. Apropos of the last, however, let’s not abandon what used to be called connoisseurship (or less pretty names) and find ourselves, like Aeneas, sailing away from Carthage with puzzlement. As you probably remember, Aeneas and his crew looked back at the great fire on the shore and wondered what could kindle such a light. The reason was hidden from them—quae tantum accenderit igna causa latet (Aeneid 5.4-5)—but what they were seeing were the flames of Queen Dido’s pyre.

This may be a climacteric in Dylan studies, but it is also a departure. We don’t want to look back from where we are only to realize we’ve left a burning body in our wake. Because something is happening and something is missing too–the frisson we used to feel adding Dylan to the conventional syllabus, the pride of resistance and loyal nonconformity, along with that sense of being partisans dropped behind the lines. We seem to have won the war after losing (almost) every battle.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, “To the spoils goes the victor.” The resonance of this remark echoes down the corridors of the academy as Dylan studies, freshly legitimized, claims its laurel crown. The controversy over the Nobel has melted back into the night, replaced by seminars on Dylan on campuses everywhere. We now list our Dylan courses with the secret glee of staunch haruspices who saw the future laureate in the entrails—and conspicuously without attracting supercilious glances from colleagues.

But is it naïve to ask if Bob Dylan will survive the victory? Shakespeare didn’t, nor did Dante, which is why we have Shakespeareans and Dantista(s) to recover what we can of their achievements. This is not to compare great things to small nor to beg the question of Dylan’s place in literary (and lyrical) history. But the act of recovery is always already a death certificate. Can Dylan’s lyrical charisma—the voice and timbre and timing that make him what he is—survive its systematic study and routinization? Performance and improvisation are of the moment, spontaneous experiences of shared intimacy. Can a song lift out of an archive?

Maybe this is a crossroads. Part of me hopes it isn’t, because you never know who, with tract oblique, might arrive at the crossroads offering too much knowledge.

Part of me, on the other hand, hopes this truly is a crossroads. Not a place of pacts or glozing promises, however, and not the diminished site of future quibbles. Instead, part of me hopes for a crossroads of opportunity and exchange, a crossroads of scholarly disciplines and coeval interpretative languages—a marketplace where nothing is sold, nothing bought, and everything is delivered. But that isn’t up to me.

– RF