Posts

Nicholas Birns teaches modern and contemporary literature at the Center for Applied Liberal Arts, School of Professional Studies, New York University. His articles have appeared in Exemplaria, Angelaki, Victorian Studies, and MLQ. His latest book is The Hyperlocal in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Literary Space (Lexington, 2019).He teaches a Bob Dylan course regularly and contributed to Dylan At 80, coedited by Constantine Sandis and Gary Browning.

Mark DeStephano is Chairman and Professor of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, and Director and Professor of the Asian Studies Program at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.  He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Philosophy from Fordham University, four Master’s degrees in Theology from Regis College of the University of Toronto, and his Master’s and doctoral degrees in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University.  His research focuses on medieval European literatures and on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and identity in Asian and Latino cultures.

Christine Hand Jones is an Assistant Professor of English at Dallas Baptist University, where she teaches Writing, Literature, and Songwriting courses. She is interested in the intersections of music and literature, and her recent work has focused on Bob Dylan, The Band, and Paul Simon. She has a PhD in literary studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned largely by writing about the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. When she’s not in the classroom, she performs her original soulful folk-rock music around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Her most recent album, The Book of the World, features sweet, bluesey vocals over vintage folk-rock instrumentation. The songs celebrate the everyday inspiration found in coffee cups and bluebonnet fields, imagining all creation as a book of revelation.

Graley Herren is a Professor of English at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is the author of Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (Anthem Press, 2021), The Self-Reflexive Art of Don DeLillo (Bloomsbury, 2019), Samuel Beckett’s Plays on Film and Television (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and numerous articles on various modern artists. He also edited five volumes of the Text & Presentation book series for McFarland, and he is an executive board member for the annual Comparative Drama Conference.

Dave Junker is Associate Professor of Instruction and Director of the Honors Program in the Moody College of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his master’s degree in Afro-American Studies and his doctorate in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an active musician and an independent recording artist.

Thomas M. Kitts, Professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of books on Ray Davies, John Fogerty, and, forthcoming, Richie Furay. With Nick Baxter-Moore, he edited the Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor, and with Gary Burns, he edits Popular Music and Society and Rock Music Studies. He also chairs the music area for the Popular Culture Association.

Thomas G. Palaima, Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics at University of Texas, Austin and a MacArthur fellow, has long thought and taught about evil, suffering, and injustice in human societies, ancient and modern. In 1963-’68, Bob Dylan and James Brown changed his life. He has written over five hundred commentaries, reviews, book chapters, feature pieces, and poems on what human beings do with their lives. These have appeared in such venues as the Times Higher Education, Michigan War Studies Review, Arion, Athenaeum Review, The Texas Observer, the Los Angeles Times, and commondreams.org.

Christopher Rollason: M.A. in English, Trinity College, Cambridge. Doctorate in English, University of York. Author of numerous published articles, lectures and conference papers on Bob Dylan, and of the book Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan (2021). Attended international Dylan conferences held in Caen (France), 2005 and Tulsa (Oklahoma), 2019.

Nathan Schmidt is currently pursuing a PhD in American literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. His work has appeared in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and the Indiana University blog Conversations in Science, and he is a contributing editor for the website Gamers with Glasses. Dylan and the Beats originally inspired him to pursue a career in English. He has played the guitar since he was nine years old.

​​Evan Sennett is a graduate student at Indiana University specializing in American literature. His interests include American Transcendentalism as well as twentieth century Kentucky authors like Wendell Berry and Harlan Hubbard. He also has a background in filmmaking. His various projects have screened in over 100 film festivals around the world.

Christopher Star is professor of classics at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Apocalypse and Golden Age: The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press 2021).

Joe Whang is an artist and illustrator born in Seoul, Korea. He has a BFA in Illustration and an AAS degree in Graphic Design from Parsons School of Design. His paintings and illustrations have gained recognition from such prestigious organizations as the World Illustration Awards in the U.K., Applied Arts in Canada, American Illustration, 3×3 Magazine, Creative Quarterly, and the Society of Illustrators New York. His work has been shown in exhibitions in the U.K., South Korea, and the Philippines, and he is currently a member artist at b.j. spoke gallery in Huntington, NY.

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

Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alessandro Carrera is Moores Professor of Italian Studies and World Cultures and Literatures at the University of Houston, Texas. He has published extensively in the fields of Continental Philosophy, Italian and Comparative Literature, Art, Cinema, and Music (classical and popular). He is the author of La voce di Bob Dylan (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2001, 2011, 2021) and three other short books on Dylan. He has translated the songs and prose of Bob Dylan into Italian, all published by Feltrinelli: Chronicles Vol. 1 (2005), Tarantula (2007), Lyrics in various annotated editions, the most recent in three volumes: Lyrics 1961-1968, Lyrics 1969-1982, Lyrics 1983-2020 (published in 2021). 

Sarah Gates is the Craig Professor of English at St. Lawrence University, where she teaches British literature of all periods, poetry, and songwriting.  She has published on Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Tennyson, Joni Mitchell, and most recently, Louise Erdrich.  She is also a musician with the local indie-rock band Bee Children.

Michael Gray is an independent scholar who pioneered the serious study of Dylan’s work with Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, 1972. His books include the massively updated Song & Dance Man III(1999), The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia(2006), Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell (2007), and Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021. He has delivered guest lectures in Europe and North America, including at Stanford, California and Bath Literature Festival. His website is www.michaelgray.net

Timothy Hampton is professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also directs the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities. He has written widely on literature and culture, across several languages and centuries.  He is the author of Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work (Zone Books, 2019). A recent article is “Bob Dylan in the Country: Rock Domesticity and Pastoral Song” (Representations, 152, fall 2020). A new study, Cheerfulness: A Literary and Cultural History will be published in 2022 by Zone Books.  He writes about literature, music, and education at www.timothyhampton.org.

John Hughes‘s writings on Dylan include Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Taylor & Francis, 2013). He is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Gloucestershire and has published widely on nineteenth and twentieth-century literature and philosophy, particularly Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth. 

Jeffrey S. Lamp is Professor of New Testament and Instructor of Environmental Science at Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma. His primary research and publishing interests are in the field of ecotheology. He has authored five books and co-edited one. He was a translator and editor for the Modern English Version of the Bible (Passio/Charisma House). He is a frequent presenter at academic conferences, has published articles in several journals, dictionaries, and volumes of collected essays, and is the editor of Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology.

Michele Ulisse Lipparini, born in Milano where he’s based, is an independent scholar who started listening to Bob Dylan in 1988 at age 16. Digging into Dylan’s songs pushed him into learning English, which led him to work as a translator and eventually to collaborate for a few years with Delfina Vezzoli, Italian translator of Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld. In addition to completing Vezzoli’s translation of John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, Lipparini has translated graphic novels and published articles about Bob Dylan in magazines such as Isis, Buscadero and on various websites, and contributed consistently to Olof Bjorner’s website, www.bjorner.com. He also held a conference about the Nobel Laureate as part of the Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna Poetry Festival in 2015. He has attended 170 Bob Dylan concerts all over the world.

Anne Marie Mai is professor of literature and a chair of DIAS at The University of Southern Denmark. She has published more than 200 articles, book chapters and monographs. She nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize, which he won in 2016. She has published Bob Dylan. The Poet (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2018, German translation will be published 2021), she edited the anthology New Approaches to Bob Dylan (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2019) and contributed to The World of Bob Dylan (ed. Sean Latham, Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Andrew Muir current commitments include teaching language and literature at The Leys School, Cambridge, UK and delivering Shakespeare and Dylan talks at a variety of conferences. Dylan publications: Razor’s Edge (2001), One More Night (21013), Troubadour (2003). An examination of historical and contemporary outdoor Shakespeare performances: Shakespeare in Cambridge followed, in 2015. This led to a comparative study, Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It, (2nd edition 2021).

Jacqueline Osherow is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently My Lookalike at the Krishna Temple (LSU Press, 2019). She’s received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Witter Bynner Prize. Her poems have appeared in many magazines, journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, the Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, Best American Poetry, The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Twentieth Century American Poetry, and The Making of a Poem. She’s Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah. 

Allesandro Portelli has taught American Literature in the universities of Rome “La Sapienza” and Siena. He has served as advisor on democratic historical memory to the Mayor of Rome and founded the Circolo Gianni Bosio for the critical study and historical presence of people’s culture, folk music, and oral history. He is the author of many books on literature, popular culture, working-class history, including The Order Has Been Carried OutThey Say in Harlan Dean County; The Death of Luigi Trastulli. Form and Meaning in Oral History.

Christopher Rollason, M.A. in English, Trinity College, Cambridge. Doctorate in English, University of York. Author of numerous published articles, lectures and conference papers on Bob Dylan. Attended international Dylan conferences held in Caen (France), 2005 and Tulsa (Oklahoma), 2019.

Jim Salvucci, since receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, has served as an English professor, dean, and vice president at several institutions of higher education. For many years he taught an advanced course in Bob Dylan studies, and he continues to blog, present, and publish on Bob Dylan. Currently he lives in Newburgh, NY, and serves as a management consultant to nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations. He can be found online at jimsalvucci.com.

John H. Serembus, PhD., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Widener University. In his forty-plus years in the classroom, he has taught a wide variety of courses, but mainly those in Logic (both formal and informal), Critical Thinking, Ethics, and Values.

David Thurmaier is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Chair of the Music Studies Division at the University of Missouri – Kansas City Conservatory. His research focuses on the music of Charles Ives, as well as the Beatles. He has published book chapters on George Harrison’s connections to popular music, John Lennon’s political music, and has a forthcoming chapter on Paul McCartney’s use of pastiche. In 2019, he presented a paper examining the musical relationship between Harrison and Bob Dylan at the “World of Bob Dylan” conference in Tulsa. He also co-hosts two podcasts: “I’ve Got a Beatles Podcast,” and “Hearing the Pulitzers.”

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

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent Scholar, Luxembourg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Neil Corcoran is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool.  He has published widely in the areas of modern poetry, modern Irish literature and, latterly, Shakespeare, most recently Reading Shakespeare’s Soliloquies (2018).  He is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry and, in 2002, he edited Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, reprinted in 2017 with a new preface by Will Self.

Stuart Hampton-Reeves is the author of several books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Hall (Bloomsbury 2019). He was the Head of the British Shakespeare Association from 2011-2016. He’s spent most of his academic career at the University of Central Lancashire and in 2020, he will be taking a new role as Professor and Head of School at the University of Warwick, UK.

William Luhr is professor of English and Film at St. Peter’s University and Co-Chair of the faculty-level Columbia University Seminar on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation. He has published over a dozen books, numerous articles, and lectures widely both nationally and internationally on film and cultural issues.

Robert Reginio is a Professor of English at Alfred University in New York and is a member of the editorial board of the Dylan Review. He teaches classes in the modern novel, modernist poetry and modern and contemporary drama. He is currently at work exploring contemporary musical adaptations of the texts of Samuel Beckett and on the unique poetics of John Wesley Harding.

Christopher Rollason is an independent scholar living in Luxembourg. He graduated in English from Trinity College, Cambridge and obtained his Ph.D from the University of York, with a thesis on Edgar Allan Poe. He is a former lecturer in English at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and has a large number of academic papers to his credit, on Poe, Bob Dylan and other subjects. He has contributed regularly to the UK-based Dylan zine The Bridge, and has lectured on Dylan at various universities in Europe, as well as publishing Dylan-related articles and reviews in journals and press organs including Oral Tradition (US), Atlantis (Spain), The Grove (Spain), Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais (Portugal), San Marcos Semanal (Peru), La Prensa (Bolivia) and more. He participated in the international Dylan conferences held in Caen (France) in 2005 and Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2019, and chaired a session on the translation of Dylan at the Madrid book fair in 2017. Most of his Dylan work is available online.

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.