Back in the hard old days, when ambition was in the air on MacDougal Street, a song began “Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less.” Nothing prepared us for that opening line, the deeply ironic claim to anonymity by a voice instantly recognizable—a voice unmasking the singer and contradicting his words. Nor were we prepared for the searing skepticism of the song, the lyrics weighted with ironies to match the irony of anonymity. Of the nine verses, seven offered cherrypicked examples from unspeakable predations, ruinous wars, and the most grotesque horrors of the 20th century. The singer might be young, or he might be ageless, and his posture might be callow, but there was no resisting the gradual crescendo leading toward the inevitable challenge: “The words fill my head / And fall to the floor / If God’s on our side / He’ll stop the next war.”


But that was then and this is now. We beat on, yes, with rumors of wars and wars that have been. But when it comes to the erstwhile singer from MacDougal Street, does his name still mean nothing and his age even less? An interesting question comes to mind, now, long after the celebrated MacDougal Street dénouements: Is it true that his name is nothing and his age means less? Is Dylan still the erstwhile Outis of MacDougal Street?


In a word: No. Name and age mean increasingly more when we listen to—or read Dylan. But that is not only because he’s become part of our cultural repertoire, because his life has been uncrumpled in multiple biographies, to the extent that we know where he was on what day in a given year twenty or more years before. My contention is that Dylan himself has gradually let his personal identity seep into his songs, that, like the “Frog” in Dickinson’s poem (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”), he has increasingly found pleasure in “telling [his] name” to “an admiring Bog.” His new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, released in October 2022, which has already received plenty of reviews online and in newspapers, is a case in point. Too many of the reviewers, unfortunately, have used their reviews as a platform to take potshots at Dylan rather than trying to understand the text. One critic, who shall remain nameless, complained that the book was “saturated with misogyny,” as if misogyny were a noxious fluvial excretion. A weird metaphor, and too close to ad hominem critique. But we can dismiss that sort of review. More interesting by far are the serious reviewers who read the book, as Dylan seems to encourage with the songs he analyzes, as a portrait of the artist in statu nascendi. The sense of identity informs and suffuses the book, providing a stepping-stone for readers intent on following the yellow brick road to Dylan’s musical, or magical, origins or, to follow, in Warren Zevon’s phrase, what “the mystics and statistics say.” The new book turns out to be a kind of prismatic version of Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2004), intertwining the young Zimmerman’s playlist with a series of later songs peppered with epigrammatic reflections from a marvelously informed and cryptically associative cicerone. In The Philosophy of Modern Song at least, Dylan’s name it is something and his age it means more.


This semi-autobiographical voice, however much it impinges, doesn’t seem out of place in the book, even if it undermines the intellectual disinterest flaunted by the book’s title. But the infusion of identity into Dylan’s “philosophy” should come as no surprise. It’s my impression that, for better or worse, about twenty-five years ago the songs too began to change in this direction. This change—again, to my mind—manifests itself most clearly in Time Out of Mind. The anonymity of the singer/speaker gives way to less blurred identification of the author as the singer: to wit, “Not Dark Yet” and especially “Highlands.” After decades of rejecting personal identification with the speakers in his songs, Dylan seems deliberately to experiment with a new form of expression—identity-driven, intimate, a new Whitmanian “I.” This break with the anonymous past, if I can call it that, has made little impression on us as critics, or even as listeners, except, predictably, in interpretations of “I Contain Multitudes” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.


On one hand, Dylan’s lyrical experimentation as “Bob Dylan” might not seem new, given the array of early songs with “Bob Dylan” in their titles—not to mention the continuing fascination with Dylan’s “mercurial” identity, starting with his own Carnegie Hall Halloween concert joke “I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask” in the 60s through Renaldo and Clara, which features Dylan as Renaldo watching a Bob Dylan show, and finally such identity-bending escapades as “Masked and Anonymous” and “I’m Not There.”


On the other hand, the identity that begins to emerge on Time Out of Mind is a far cry from the wacky, unreal “Bob Dylan,” of “Bob Dylan’s 116 th Dream” or of spoofs like “Motorpsycho Nightmare.” Not even the eponymous westward-bound hero of “Bob Dylan’s Dream” provides a believable identity. Still, most listeners probably can name a song in which they hear Bob Dylan identify himself and speak without anonymity—“Ballad in Plain D,” for example, or “Sara,” a song whose historical reality confutes its status as one of Dylan’s most nostalgic lyrics. But the voice of that song, despite the title’s naming of a real-life wife, repels intimacy and instinctively guards its lyrical anonymity. It’s almost as if Dylan were taking a page from the Ars amatoria where Ovid advises:

Si latet, ars prodest: adfert deprensa pudorem,
Atque adimit merito tempus in omne fidem.

[Art, if hidden, avails: if detected, it brings shame, and deservedly discredits you forever.] [1]

In “Sara” the impression of hidden art “availing” or, less archaically, being useful (“prodest” is most commonly translated as “is useful”) pervades the song’s intimate memories, as if the mask of poetic manipulation will spare the artist shame—not only as an artist, but precisely because as an artist he has revealed his identity as the divorced husband of Sara. In fact, thanks to his hidden art, Bob Dylan’s name it means nothin’, and his age it means less even when the singer discloses an irrefutable identity-marker:

I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through
Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you

The unexpectedly revealing mention of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” leads to a quandary. As intimate as “Sara” purports to be, and as perfect an I.D. as “Sad-Eyed Lady” offers, the lyric slightly distorts historical reality, or hides it in images like “I can hear the sounds of those Methodist bells.” The Methodist bells could have been real, ringing out from the United Methodist Church on West 13 th Street. But the material reality of the bells, if it existed at all, merges with all those other highly significant bells in Dylan’s songs, from “Chimes of Freedom” to “Farewell Angelina / The bells of the crown” to, unforgettably, from the same album as “Sad- Eyed Lady,” “Shakespeare, he’s in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells.” The “Methodist bells” straddle a threshold between reality and abstraction, between Bob Dylan in a room at the Chelsea Hotel and an array of images associated with bells. This array of possible references, like slight abstractions from “the facts,” relieves the pressure on the singer to identify fully with the speaker.


The same cannot be said for “Highlands,” Dylan’s most ambitious narrative lyric after “Tangled Up in Blue.” The “I” in that song, carved out of the verses with such photographic clarity, merges into the singer’s “off-album” identity. This comes as quite a surprise. But part of the song’s power, its unparalleled sustaining voice including the subtle vocal, which is sometimes querulous, sometimes decisive depend on undoing anonymity in what seems an offhand, observational poetics. In American poetry, there is Whitman wandering through Manhattan and, almost a century later, Frank O’Hara. Dylan would probably have known Whitman, who, in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856)

Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,

Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,

The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,

The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine

The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses.

Dylan claims to have known O’Hara’s work. [2] And the tenor of O’Hara’s observational itinerant poetry, like Whitman’s, seems to anticipate Dylan’s experiments with the form.

The gulls wheeled
several miles away
and the bridge, which
stood on wet-barked
trees, was broad and
cold. Rio de Janeiro
is just another fishing
village, said George.
The sun boomed calmly
in the wind around
the monument. Texans
and Australians climbed
to the top to look
at Beacon Hill and
the Common. Later we
walked round the base
of the hill to the Navy
Yard, and the black
and white twigs stuck
in the sky above the old
hull. Outside the gate
some children jumped
higher and higher off
the highway embankment.
Cars honked. Leaves
On trees shook. And
above us the elevated
trolley trundled along.
The wind waved steadily
from the sea. Today we
have seen Bunker Hill
and the Constitution,
said George. Tomorrow,
probably, our country
will declare war.

“A Walk on a Sunday Afternoon”


O’Hara’s descriptive associations lull the reader like a pleasant itinerary, until he makes a lightning leap from the certainty of quotidian space (“Today we / have seen Bunker Hill”) to the quantum uncertainty of what’s to come (“Tomorrow, / probably, our country / will declare war”).


Compare O’Hara’s dictional maneuvers to Dylan’s in “Highlands”:

Every day is the same thing out the door
Feel further away than ever before
Some things in life, it gets too late to learn
Well, I’m lost somewhere
I must have made a few bad turns

I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright-colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I’d trade places with any of them
In a minute, if I could

I’m crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talking to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat
Somebody just asked me
If I registered to vote

“Highlands,” Time Out of Mind


In one light, “Highlands” can be seen as Dylan’s attempt to establish himself as a poet of the quotidian itinerary, a Whitmanian persona inserting himself between the trapper and his squaw (“I trade places with any of them / In a minute if I could”). This posture is a benchmark departure. Dylan long ago confirmed his credentials as a Whitmanian vatic poet, and his embrace of what might be called the “other Whitman” deserves attention. In contrast, O’Hara felt he lacked the vatic talent, and he accepted his inability to write with that kind of authority. In “For Bob Rauschenberg” he asks,

what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coined?

O’Hara might have added Dylan’s name after Ginsberg’s. But “Highlands” seems to herald a new Dylan—not the anonymous prophetic voice of the anthems, nor the cunningly slippery persona of such songs as “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Jokerman.” Instead, “Highlands” introduces listeners to a voice whose name and age matter, both inside the song’s narrative, and outside, in the interpretation of that narrative. When faced with the universal, suddenly the “I” seems to have a real-world presence in “Highlands,” framed by a new quotidian diction and a very tricky narrative frankness, reminiscent, perhaps, of Whitman’s “of Manhattan the son.”


This narrative frankness often compels us now to listen to Dylan’s songs without critical detachment, identifying the speaker of the lyrics as a celebrated 80-year old Nobel laureate named Bob Dylan whose life history we know well. The meaning of the newer songs sometimes relies on this identification in a way that “Hard Rain,” “Baby Blue,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Highway 61,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and so on, did not. “Tangled Up in Blue,” of course, received the full biographical treatment from critics, but ultimately the sheer brilliance of the lyrics superseded reductive interpretations.


To my ear, however, many songs since “Highlands” have shed the chrysalis of anonymity and agelessness. Take “Murder Most Foul,” a song from the latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, in which the identity of the singer seems to me to be crucial. It’s as if Dylan’s signature inhabits certain verses, as if he were mounting an exhibition of his own art—not visual art this time, but aural and oral. The song exudes an 80-year-old’s pained memories and a laureate’s dab hand with metrical and allusive pyrotechnics. At first, the speaker is nameless, an embodiment of an epoch (or the Voice of a Generation):

Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage

Dylan—famously, and despite a tsunami of rumors—did not perform at Woodstock (although he lived there and, in Big Pink, produced the colossally influential Basement Tapes). The nameless speaker charts a familiar cultural journey through the 60s, lacing the lines with quotations and suggestive rhymes like “rags/flags” and “Aquarian Age/stage” (the latter a reference to the song “The Age of Aquarius” performed in the Broadway play Hair). The verse tumbles from the innocence of “lil’ children” who are led by the Pied-Piper Mop Tops out of Liverpool to an uglier, menacing place where “three bums [are] comin’ all dressed in rags.” The “three bums” probably refers to the infamous “three tramps” associated with the Kennedy assassination because they were caught in newspaper photographs while being escorted by a Dallas policeman on November 22, 1963. [3] The quick transition in the verse to the promise of peace and love and Aquarius at Woodstock followed by the horrible murder “near the stage” at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont closes the circle, blasting the innocence of the first lines with a mirror of JFK’s assassination in the final line.


This is Dylan, if not precisely as the Voice of His Generation, then as the generation’s telegraphic chronicler. His identity is missing, except in the movement of the verse, which contains a subtle identifying marker: the narrative travels from the River Mersey to Woodstock and finally to Altamont, California. The narrator is bringing it all back home.


Later in the song, though, the first person speaker seems to reveal, and even underscore, his identity:

Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before
Seen it thirty three times, maybe more
It’s vile and deceitful—it’s cruel and it’s mean
Ugliest thing that you ever have seen
They killed him once, they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son, The age of the anti-Christ
has just only begun.”
Air Force One coming in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at two thirty-eight
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is and it’s murder most foul

The number thirty-three has mystical Christological overtones, in this instance linking Jesus’s age when he was crucified to “human sacrifice” and “the age of the anti-Christ,” which is presumably a reversal of the Age of Aquarius. But to complement (and complicate) the magical, numerological thinking, the speaker quickly brings the song down to earth: he recalls watching the Zapruder film “maybe more” than thirty-three times, as if forced like Alex in A Clockwork Orange to sit through the “Ugliest thing that you ever have seen.” This detail provides a moment of recognition, another identity-marker, because watching the Zapruder film irresistibly calls to mind a particular moment in America and captures a long forgotten Zeitgeist. As a result, the “I’ve seen” of the verse’s opening line seems to embody both the song’s speaker and the singer/songwriter himself, who, like the film, is a relic of the early 60s and a witness to murder most foul.


At times “Murder Most Foul” can sound like a carefully packed portmanteau, while at other times it’s more of a potpourri. It seems fair to ask whether Dylan is vamping erudition in his array of allusions, or whether he genuinely wants the Kennedy assassination to symbolize the whole of American cultural experience as a series of post hoc ergo propter hoc portents by the Weird (or Wired) Sisters of Macbeth. It’s probably impossible to answer that question. But maybe Dylan anticipated just such an impossibility. Maybe the song’s achievement lies in its highlighting of a particularly American indeterminacy, a liminal space where coherence and symbolic aporia meet.


In terms of my original conjecture—that is, how far Dylan has come from “Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less”—both “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” are the most obvious recent examples of his anonymity shedding. These songs seem, at this stage, to bookend “Highlands” and “Not Dark Yet.” But I don’t want to overdetermine my readings or lose all claim to critical tact. Let me conclude instead with a tempting, but hardly definitive, suggestion of an identity-marker from “Crossing the Rubicon.” In the first verse Dylan sings, “I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn.” In the Greek pantheon, the Goddess of Dawn was Eos (Aurora in the Roman pantheon). Her lover was Tithonus. The legend goes that Eos pleaded with Zeus to give Tithonus eternal life, which he granted. But Zeus did not give him eternal youth. So, while Eos was born anew every morning with the dawn, Tithonus grew older and older for all eternity. Tennyson voices this excruciating paradox perfectly:

Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East.



Does “Crossing the Rubicon” purposely begin with an image suggestive enough to make us think of the 80-year-old Dylan in the arms of an eternally young goddess? The paradox might amuse a singer/songwriter on a never-ending tour, aging from year to year as the performances are newly born at every gig from east to west. So what then are we to conclude from that? That Dylan’s career went from withdrawal to transparency, from hidden identity to a form of confessionalism, from Keats to the New York School? Or maybe something subtly different—that even the most self-revelatory Dylan lyrics keep a layer of obfuscation between the singer and his audience, that self-disclosure and self-mythologizing go hand in hand, to the extent that even the 80-year-old singer-poet views himself through the lens of Greek myth. As Whitman says, also in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,”

What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with
         voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest
         name as I approach?


What is Dylan’s “nighest name” today. He might have transitioned from nothing to something or multiple somethings—but that something still isn’t Dylan up close (and not, may the gods preserve us, Bobby Zimmerman).


[1] Ovid, Ars amatoria, Book II, lines 313-14, in Ovid in Six Volumes, vol. 2, The Art of Love and Other Poems, translated by J.H. Mozley, revised by G.P. Goold (Loeb Classical Library; Harvard UP, 1929; 2nd ed., 1979), pages 86-87.


[3] I am grateful to Cliff Radar for this reference. See Wikipedia:

Literary canon formation is a curious thing, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize has certainly put the cat among the pigeons on that score. There’s no question about Dylan’s commanding presence in the rock ‘n roll “canon,” if that’s an appropriate word: the canonical rock ‘n roll artists can be corralled in the second half of the 20th century. Rock ‘n roll is no longer the most popular musical form, if it’s still being made at all, and we already know the primary names of the rock canon. Apart from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its portmanteau approach to inflating the canon by heralding little-known musical influences, no expansion is realistically possible. Rock ‘n roll is now a static form, its history set in concrete, and expanding the rock canon would be like expanding, for example, the canon of Romantic poets. We might find an interesting rocker or early influence whose discovery enriches our understanding and challenges biases, but the definition of the period would remain intact.


Nor is there any question about Dylan’s centrality to the last years of the Second Folk Movement, which can be dated to the late fifties. In an odd (and well-rehearsed) paradox, Dylan probably did as much as anyone to kill off the Folk Movement while remaining, at least to those outside the world of Dylan-watchers, the consummate 60s folksinger. The name Bob Dylan still means “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” even if the original cultural context of those songs is long lost – whether they can be revived with cultural force is yet to be determined. And although Sara Danius suggested Blonde on Blonde as a place to start Dylan appreciation, and resist as we might this reductive equation of Dylan with his acoustic-era songs, it must be admitted that, in Stockholm on that fateful night, Patti Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” from the acoustic Freewheelin’ album. This is the Bob Dylan even Bob Dylan himself and Patti Smith seem to recognize as his “face value.”


But Dylan didn’t win the Nobel Prize for acoustic folk, folk rock, rock, or any other kind of music (the Swedes don’t give a medal for music). Lest we forget, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This genre-bending acknowledgment, regardless of how much we admire the Nobel Committee’s bravery, means that we must think of Dylan as part of the literary canon. He isn’t simply the most significant songwriter of his generation, nor even, to quote Richard Thomas, “the supreme artist of the English language of my time.”[1] Dylan is now a sanctioned figure in the American literary canon.


Or is he? The newest Norton Anthology of American Literature (10th Edition) doesn’t include any Dylan songs (with or without music). Not that this college tome represents the last word in canonicity.[2] But the absence of Dylan’s name, amid the welter of much less well-known authors, none of whom has won the Nobel, inevitably undermines Dylan’s new literary status. To exclude the 2016 American laureate is tantamount to denying the literariness of his work—and defying the Swedish imprimatur. It’s a puzzling omission and a missed opportunity to expand and diversify the literary canon with a homegrown interdisciplinary art form. Is this evidence of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower, or simply a case of something happening here, and they don’t know what it is?[3]


Either way, the cat’s among the pigeons. Dylan’s indefinable literary status highlights the conundrum of canon formation. In my view, the Norton omission is an editorial blunder, though it might not be in the short run. But in the longer run, questions about inclusion, exclusion, and interdisciplinary diversity will fill our heads until they fall to the floor.


Redefining the concept of “Literature” with a capital “L” is fundamental to Dylan’s bid for canonicity. Henry Louis Gates addressed a similar redefinition when he edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature in the 1990s, announcing what was for the time “an innovation in anthology production.” Gates explained that “Because of the strong oral and vernacular base of so much of our literature, we shall include a cassette tape along with our anthology. This means that each period will include both the printed and spoken text of oral and musical selections of black vernacular culture: sermons, blues, spirituals, R&B, poets reading their own ‘dialect’ poems, speeches, and other performances.”[4] According to Gates, “The canon that we define will be ‘our’ canon, one possible set of selections among several possible sets of selections.” And he concludes, “Scholars make canons.”


While I’m skeptical about this last statement, I like Gates’s knitting together of printed text and oral performance to form the “vernacular base” of literature.[5] Dylan himself hints at the same sort of knitting-together in his Nobel lecture. As Richard Thomas points out, Dylan offers “a fascinating description of how he gained mastery of the ‘vernacular’ of the early folk artists by singing the songs: ‘You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.’” Dylan’s lecture provides a kind of road map of personalized canon formation. Thomas summarizes it this way: “Just as he becomes Odysseus later in the lecture – ‘You too have had the drugs dropped in your wine’ – so too here he has entered into the folk songs and ballads which he has hardwired and whose world he inhabits. This is what it means to live inside the world of literature and song.”[6]


Notable by their absence are the scholarly canon-makers. Dylan’s reflections demonstrate how an artist internalizes prior works and reimagines them in his own songs, and, as Thomas highlights, Dylan’s attention to the vernacular is invaluable. Gates and his co-editors expansively define “vernacular literature” to embody popular and highly influential Black musical forms. Yet, try as we might, it’s difficult to think of Robert Johnson or Billie Holliday or Duke Ellington as literary figures. Dylan, too, has a credibility problem in terms of literary status, his lyrical genius and Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Academic curricula and public impressions make it abundantly clear that – though hope springs eternal – the redefinition of “literature” is still a work in progress. Perhaps that’s as it should be – perhaps the precise definition of literature should always be in statu nascendi: in a dynamic state of coming into being. In any case, as is also abundantly clear, no canon can be determined by fiat.


Not that Dylan’s serious audience ever worried much about that. We were convinced his survival outside the conventional canon was guaranteed because we had a card up our sleeves: the irresistibility of the songs themselves. The songs would straddle canonical limits and live on in (relative) perpetuity. As Milton said about Shakespeare in 1632, before the onslaught of Bardolatry:


What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?[7]


Why should Shakespeare need a marble tomb to preserve his memory? Why should his “relics” be buried under a pyramid? Such preservation efforts are pointless: Milton apostrophizes Shakespeare, asserting “Thou…hast built thyself a livelong monument” with “easy numbers” and “the leaves of thy unvalued book.”


As has Dylan, with his 600-plus songs and his numberless recordings making up his “unvalued book.” And surely Dylan’s “easy numbers,” so riveting and transformative over the years, will be enough to build a “livelong monument.” Surely our bard, our vates, has written and played and sung himself into the canon.


But which canon? Formulated how? Sustained in what medium?


I repeat the refrain: canon formation is a curious thing. For example—if I can digress from literature – Ted Gioia recently wrote in The Atlantic that, mirabile dictu, old music was far outselling new music:


Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music – especially that endangered species known as the working musician – should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.


He records his surprise when a young cashier is singing “Message in a Bottle,” and then again at a diner, “where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old.”[8]


Gioia marvels that “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.” As fascinating as this phenomenon is, however, Gioia doesn’t address the converse situation, the elephant in the room regarding canonicity. It’s one thing to call attention to the unique historical situation where new tracks become hits “while generating so little cultural impact.” But there’s no reason to suppose that, conversely, the old songs now representing 70 percent of the US music market are generating any impact on contemporary culture. The old songs lack present identity: they’re interchangeable, it seems, a kind of musical wallpaper. Gioia asks his server in the diner, perhaps with cultural impact in the back of his mind, “‘Why are you playing this old music?’ She looked at me in surprise before answering: ‘Oh, I like these songs.’”


The banality of the server’s answer says it all: there’s no cultural connection to New Wave and the Police, just as singing along with “Norwegian Wood” would bring no thrill of contraband, no shared code – i.e., illegal marijauna. Would even the searing accusations of Neil Young’s “Ohio” be detected and understood? Fewer Dylan songs seem to stream through the restaurants and supermarkets, but if they did, how much cultural frisson could we expect from inadvertent listeners to “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” or even “Masters of War.” The excitement, or incitement, of 60s, 70s, and 80s songs has been absorbed into the sponge of streaming culture.


Some of us have been resisting this kind of absorption for a long time, trying to keep the context alive. We’ve been teaching Dylan courses, and Dylan in courses, throughout our careers. But for my part, I can’t say confidently that my Dylan courses have become part of the curriculum. They certainly don’t have the prestige or regularity of standard department seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Woolf, or Morrison, and Dylan isn’t assigned alongside other 20th-century poets in survey courses. This absence is understandable, perhaps, since Dylan’s official elevation to literary ranks is recent and teaching him has, until now, been a niche vocation. Not to mention that bringing Dylan into the literary classroom has always presented a technical issue, while expecting literature students to know something about folk music and the blues is often a bridge too far. Nevertheless, like many another Dylanista, I keep my hand on that plow and hold on, continuing to translate Dylan into the literary classroom.


But this alone won’t make Dylan part of the literary canon. Pace Gates, scholars don’t make the canon and professors can’t shoehorn him in. The best we can do as scholars is to facilitate future canon-makers. The best we can do is hope that, by interpolating Dylan into our teaching and research, we can inspire future poets, novelists, playwrights (and maybe poet-musicians) to respond to Dylan’s work, thus giving them the chance to internalize Dylan, to “master” him as part of the vernacular. Dylan’s canonical status is in their hands.


I’d like to be sanguine about this process. I’d like to think the founding of the spectacular Bob Dylan Archive in 2017 will have a trickle-down effect. But the song it is long and there’s more to be sung.


Allow me to close with an anecdote, a personal tale of erosion. Not so long ago in my university courses I would occasionally quote lines like “The pumps don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles” or “there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off,” or, perhaps (with reference to upcoming grades), “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” I quoted Dylan—as one might quote “To be, or not to be”—to illustrate a point, serendipitously, in Paradise Lost, say, or to link a passage in Mary Wroth to the ”sound of the street.” The Dylan lines would resonate familiarly with the class, bringing a smile of recognition (and, ideally, an LED of connection). But gradually, and then abruptly, the recognition disappeared. It seemed to me to be a precipitous erosion, a mudslide. Like Hemingway’s going bankrupt: gradually, and then all at once. And while I’d like to believe Ted Gioia’s statistics about old music, I haven’t seen much evidence of it. As things stand now, alas, I get more resonance in class from straight Milton quotes than from Dylan: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” draws nods and smiles; “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” produces blank faces.


Canonicity always has an element of unpredictability – waiting for the right configuration of admirers to come along, for the times to be ready for the specific kind of innovation a writer offers. John Donne is one example of this. Known and admired in his lifetime, he never published his poetry, which only appeared in a posthumous volume. His reputation waned and by the 18th century he’d become all but invisible: Samuel Johnson didn’t even include Donne in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.[9] It took Herbert Grierson’s 1912 Oxford edition of Donne and T.S. Eliot’s book review of that edition to set Donne into the firmament. This is a good example of how scholars and poet/critics depend on each other. Anna Laetitia Barbauld offers another, perhaps more significant example. Celebrated in her day for her poetry and novels, she had a measurable influence on Romantic poets around the time of the French Revolution. But she was forgotten until the late 20th century, when her importance required a re-historicizing of the Romantic context and a reassessment of the Romantic canon, if not of canonicity itself.


It might be that a genuine classic like Milton reasserts himself, even if he temporarily goes out of fashion, while someone like Dylan hasn’t yet had that advantage. Time is a critical factor. Milton has had centuries to acquire his status, whether through other poets’ imitation or simply through habitual anthologizing. But Milton is a rarity. In other cases, there are lapses, as happened with Emily Dickinson or even Whitman, who was revered by a coterie after his death but needed William Carlos Williams and the Beats to acquire the canonicity he now enjoys. Melville became instantly famous with his first novel, yet when he died the New York Times misspelled his name. Critics always recognized how crucial he was to the American literary canon – Lewis Mumford’s 1929 book about him was a major effort to reestablish his importance in the public mind, as was F. O. Matthiessen’s 1941 American Renaissance. But it took John Huston’s 1956 film (script by Ray Bradbury), with Gregory Peck stumping around as Ahab, to affix Melville’s name in the cultural consciousness.


Despite the Nobel Committee’s top-down decision, Dylan’s time hasn’t yet come, at least not the way it has for others. As my own experience in class shows, in terms of Dylan’s cultural recognizability, we’re still in the cycle of ups and downs other many major cultural figures have survived. Maybe Dylan will never have the same status Milton does now, but meanwhile we’re doing all we can to ensure that the current upswing in Dylan’s reputation continues. And though we realize that scholars alone don’t make canons, the Dylan Review is our contribution – one of many from California to the New York island – to the current (and future) moment.




[1] Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 322.

[2] None of the other anthologies I checked included Dylan, although I’ve seen his songs in the past. Notably, Edward Hirsch’s fairly selective The Heart of American Poetry (Library of America, 2022) includes Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues [Take two]” but no Dylan.

[3] As an example of what I mean – a literary friend of mine read this last phrase and didn’t
recognize the reference.

[4] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told,” in Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, edited by David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford), 180. The cassette tapes have evolved into CDs and password-protected digital content accompanying each copy of the book.

[5] Though beside the point here, I’m more inclined to agree with Harold Bloom, the bête noire of the canon debate. Bloom used to tell his students, “Critics and scholars don’t make the canon. Poets do.” He expanded on this idea in many books, as for instance in The Western Canon: “Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels, and plays, and that response depends on acts of reading and interpretation by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.” See The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 9. This is a many-sided, complex debate, beyond the purview of this column. Cf., inter alia, John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Literary Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, 312-313; 314.

[7] John Milton, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 34.

[8] Ted Gioia, Is Old Music Killing New Music? The Atlantic, January 23, 2022; date accessed: June 17, 2022.

[9] Johnson’s Lives, though indicative of a celebrated critic’s selection, is by no means definitive. He leaves out Ben Jonson too, while including the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. And, predictably, there are no women at all in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81).

Two years ago in this column I wondered what a Dylan scholar would look like in the coming years. Now I’m wondering something different: if a Dylan scholar is the same creature as a Dylan critic. And since critics multiply faster than scholars, what is the function of a Dylan critic—or, to use a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, what is the proper function of a Dylan critic?

In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence advised—in what became one of his most quoted aphorisms—“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” Ripped from its context, this mot is, paradoxically, both enigmatic and prescriptive. In context, though, Lawrence’s terse directive describes a conundrum all too familiar in Dylan studies:

The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.[1]

The phrase “To save the tale from the artist,” however, while brilliantly evocative, puts the cart before the horse. By implying it’s possible to dislodge the moral of the tale from the moral of the artist, Lawrence assumes there are two morals to begin with. But that assumption has no foundation, unless, as Charles Olson seems to have done, we give the “morals” different names. Olson claimed that Lawrence (along with Homer, Euripides, Plato, and Christ!) “somehow chose the advantage of moral perceptions to those of the intellect.”[2] I take this to mean that the artist’s moral equates to Olson’s perceptions of the intellect, whereas, according to Lawrence, we should really focus on the tale’s moral—what Olson terms, simply, “moral perceptions.” For Lawrence, then, disentangling the moral perceptions (the tale’s) from the intellectual perceptions (the artist’s) of a work of fiction—or poetry, I presume—is tantamount to separating the two “blankly opposing morals” so that we can then trust the tale, not its producer.

But if this act of disentanglement is the proper function of the critic, then most Dylan critics stand on shaky ground. Unexamined conflation is prevalent. Moral perceptions and perceptions of the intellect tend to occupy the same space in expositions, explications, and analyses. Dylan criticism is rife with efforts linking Bob Dylan the artist to the meaning of a song, a lyric, a performance. To some, this hermeneutic phenomenon is inevitable—or irresistible—because of the ubiquitous first-person narrator who is identified (or confused) with the singer. Thus, “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow” means Dylan met a young girl who gave him a rainbow; and, while much heavy weather might be made of the rainbow symbol, few (if any) critics question the “I.” Similarly, the voice that sings “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” or “I paint landscapes—I paint nudes . . . I contain multitudes” is, first, taken to be the same persona (thirty years apart) and, second, to be Dylan himself—composer and hero of his own lyric, despite the fact that he’s obviously quoting Walt Whitman. Dylan critics rarely try to “save the tale from the artist who created it,” or divide the moral import from the intellectual perception. On the contrary, the artist is consummately part of the tale. Lawrence would squirm in his grave (while Olson might compensate by scanning Dylan’s breathing as projective verse).

Of course, we aren’t bound to Lawrence as our guru (as much as he might relish the role). Many self-respecting critics at some time in their careers contribute a definitive treatise or ars poetica on “the function of criticism”—a popular Anglophone title. Matthew Arnold kicked it off with The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, in which he uttered the famous (or infamous) call for criticism “simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.”[3] Dylan critics have followed this guideline admirably, attending to “the best that is thought and known,” not only in Dylan’s work or in his ambient milieu but also for our cultural moment in general, thus creating a “current” of new ideas. The recent Bob Dylan conferences and the outpouring of books and articles testify to the vitality of this current of new ideas—Dylan critics are not just sitting by and watching the river flow; they—or we—are creating that new current, stirring the waters.

According to Arnold, however, criticism must obey one fundamental rule: disinterestedness—by which he means “keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’” and, pertinently, “steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas . . . which criticism really has nothing to do with.” And it is here, in connection with this rule, that it becomes challenging to define the proper function of the Dylan critic. If disinterestedness means aloofness from ulterior, political, and practical considerations, then engagement with Dylan’s work makes the proper function of the critic a minefield of interestedness. The Dylan of the early 60s seemed very clearly, in Lawrence’s words, to “[set] out . . . to point a moral and adorn a tale.” The clarity blurred a bit as the decade went on. But what better way to define the anthemic songs and such social plaints as “North Country Blues” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”? The phrase “point a moral and adorn a tale” is, evidently, Lawrence’s revision of the more familiar translation of Horace’s famous phrase, “to instruct and delight” (prodesse…aut delectare).[4] Most singer-songwriters of Dylan’s generation set out to instruct and to delight: some of the instruction was, to say the least, heavy-handed, but the music, for all its experimentation with supposedly primitive forms, set out to delight audiences, young and old alike.


In 1994 Dylan sang “John Brown” on MTV Unplugged. Little known at the time, the song is a bitter indictment not only of war itself, but more so of the proud mother who pushes her son to be a soldier: “Do what the captain says,” she urges, “and medals you will get.” Dylan is unsparing as he sets her up for a fall: “she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun / And this thing she called a good old-fashioned war.” But her bragging ends in shock and disgust. As if flinging the mother’s jingoism back in her (turned-away) face, Dylan ends the song with a graphic description of her horribly maimed soldier-son.

Oh his face was all shot up and his hands were all blown off

And he wore a metal brace around his waist

He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she didn’t know

And she couldn’t even recognize his face.

Finally, the son caps this nightmarish homecoming with a cruelly ironic gesture:

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock

At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand

But as he turned to go, he called his mother close

And he dropped his medals down into her hand[5]

What is the proper function of a Dylan critic in analyzing this song—and not just the song but also the context of the MTV Unplugged performance? For example, the Persian Gulf War occurred in 1991 and the US intervention in the Bosnian conflict in 1994-1995. Should this recent militarization be part of the critic’s analysis? After all, Dylan was deliberately reviving a very old 60s song written in an era of protest. The comparison to “Masters of War” is inevitable.

The 1962 live recording of the song, released on Live at the Gaslight, features Dylan alone on his acoustic guitar. His voice is more insistent, even more unforgiving than in the Unplugged version. This performance brings back the undistilled Dylan experience that mesmerized listeners and critics alike. And, pace Lawrence, I challenge critics to disentangle the artist from the performer, or the composer from the song, when the young Bob Dylan sings “John Brown.” I don’t hear “two blankly opposing morals.” What I hear instead is Yeats’s perennially pertinent question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”[6]

Is it possible to write disinterested criticism of this performance? Does disinterested mean separating the singer from the songwriter? Does it mean separating the songwriter from the performer somehow, when, as with all singer-songwriters, the two roles are indivisible?

Which returns us to the act of disentanglement, of saving the tale (moral perspective) from the artist (intellectual perspective). Are there always “two blankly opposing morals” in Dylan’s songs, “the artist’s and the tale’s”? Is the moral perspective always distinguishable from that of the intellect? In what way does the moral of “When the Ship Comes In” point in a totally different direction from the composer’s intellectual perspective? How does the composer’s performance affect the artist-tale division? This kind of separation might be perceptible in, say, “Neighborhood Bully,” where the song seems to outstrip the topicality of the lyrics. But what about “All Along the Watchtower” or “Mississippi”?

Gérard Genette used the term metalepsis of the author to characterize the incapacity of critics to separate the artist from the hero in fiction. Invoking the nineteenth-century rhetorician Pierre Fontanier, Genette explains:

This variety of metalepsis consists—I remember it in Fontanier’s terms—in “transforming poets into heroes of the deeds that they celebrate or representing them as themselves carrying out the effects that they only paint or sing”; when an author “is represented or represents himself as himself producing that which he basically only tells or describes.”[7]

Metalepsis is a bugbear of mine. It seems to me that, even more than Lawrence’s artist and tale, Genette’s (or Fontanier’s) objection to critics’ “transforming poets into heroes of the deeds they celebrate” has crucial importance to the proper function of Dylan criticism. It might be easy to separate the poet from the anti-hero in “Joey,” but do critics exercise the same disinterestedness with “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” not to mention “Idiot Wind”? Doubtful: metalepsis is too often the rule in Dylan studies.


“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Oscar Wilde would probably say we shouldn’t bother trying to answer Yeats’s question. In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde rejected the whole idea of criticism, or at least rejected criticism as separate from the creative act. “Why,” he asked, “should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamor of criticism?” He imagined the unveiling of a statue in a critic-free Golden Age:

In the best days of art there were no art-critics. The sculptor hewed from the marble block the great white-limbed Hermes that slept within it. The waxers and gilders of images gave tone and texture to the statue, and the world, when it saw it, worshipped and was dumb.[8]

But the Golden Age never existed, not in ancient Greece or in the streets of Rome or even on MacDougal Street.

One thing is for sure. There’s no room for worshipping and being struck dumb among Dylan critics. That time has passed and the new Dylan scholarship has justifiably hastened its exit. But the proper function of the Dylan critic needs to catch up with that development. Disentanglement might be futile. Separating the morals of the performing artist (intellectual perspective) from the morals of the tale (moral perspective) might not be worth the hermeneutic candle. But there is, I think, another choice. In my view, the proper function of the Dylan critic ought to be to trust the teller of the tale. And the teller is not the artist, or even the performing artist—only metalepsis allows a critic to think that. As Dylan once remarked about the nine questions in “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.”[9] The same might be said about Dylan criticism. And that wind we need to find is not the “divine afflatus” of poetic tradition, but the presence, unpredictable, mercurial, yet always palpable, that animates Dylan’s songs—in other words, the teller of the tale.



[1] D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) (New York: Viking 1969), 2.

[2] Charles Olson, “D.H. Lawrence and the High Temptation of the Mind,” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 135.

[3] Arnold’s essay first appeared in the National Review in 1864 but was reprinted several times between 1865 and 1923, when, inevitably, T.S. Eliot published “The Function of Criticism” in Criticism (vol. 2.5). Literary critics later took up the standard and produced treatises or essays of the same name, though often with wildly different aims: e.g., inter alia, Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984), whose first sentence is “Modern European criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state.”

[4] Horace, Ars Poetica (or Epistle Ad Pisos), ll.333-34: “Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae / aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae. [Poets aim either to benefit, or to amuse, or to utter words at once both pleasing and helpful to life.] See Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Loeb Classical Library, 1978), 478-79.

[5] Dylan sings slightly different lyrics in all the available versions of the song: Broadside Ballads vol. 1 (1963, singing under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt); Unplugged (1994); Live at the Gaslight 1962 (2005); The Bootleg Series Vol. 9, The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 (2010); Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances from the Copyright Collection (2018).

[6] W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children,” The Collected Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1983), 217.

[7] Gérard Genette, Métalepse (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2004), 10: “Cette variété de métalepse consiste, je le rappelle dan les termes de Fontanier, ‘à transformer les poètes en héros de faits qu’ils célèbrent [ou à] les représenter comme operant eux-mêmes les effets qu’ils peignent ou chantent’, lorsque’un auteur ‘est représenté ou se représente comme produisant lui-même ce qu’il ne fait, au fond, que raconteur ou décrire.’” Translation is mine.

[8] “The Critic as Artist” is a dialogue-essay included in Intentions (1891).

[9] Liner notes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

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