Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graley Herren, Xavier University

Resurrecting Dying Voices in “Every Grain of Sand”

On November 5, 2021, at the end of the third concert of his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, Bob Dylan surprised and delighted the Cleveland audience by closing with “Every Grain of Sand.” He had not played the song since 2013, but from November 5th onward he concluded each show with poignant performances of the album closer from 1981’s Shot of Love. In the midst of the global pandemic, it took a shot of vaccine to get into the venue for Dylan’s first concerts since COVID-19 forced an end to the Never Ending Tour. For many fans lucky enough to nab a ticket, and for thousands more following the shows online through almost instantaneous bootleg recordings, the sublime tour provided the medicine we desperately needed, as did the album Rough and Rowdy Ways (released in summer 2020) which formed the backbone of the concert setlists. For other listeners tuned into a different frequency, “Every Grain of Sand” is a more somber reminder that our individual and collective fates are still very much “hanging in the balance,” as the singer puts it, and the scales could tip either way—toward salvation or damnation. No one knows the ingredients of the skeleton’s syringe on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour poster [see Figure 1 below], but it sure doesn’t look like a shot of love.

“There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere,” sings Dylan in the opening verse of “Every Grain of Sand.” It’s difficult not to hear this line as self-referential in 2021, as if the forty-year-old Dylan who wrote the song half a lifetime ago is speaking again through the medium of the eighty-year-old performer, crossing time and space and reaching out across the footlights to communicate with audiences in a very different historical moment. “Every Grain of Sand” meant one thing (well, several things) in the context of Dylan’s art and spiritual journey in 1981; it assumes additional layers of meaning in the context of 2021, and more specifically within the context of the tour’s setlist. The present article will raise more questions than it answers, but they all stem from two initial curiosities: Why did Dylan resurrect “Every Grain of Sand”? And what impact does it have on listeners in 2021?

Following closely on the heels of Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981) is generally viewed as the final installment in Dylan’s Christian trilogy. The initial reception of Shot of Love was mixed, though its stature has steadily risen over the intervening years.

Figure 1: Poster for Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour

 A treasure trove of songs from the recording sessions have since been released, and it now seems that Dylan had a great album in the master tapes even if that’s not what made it into record stores. The one song from Shot of Love that was instantly hailed as a masterpiece was “Every Grain of Sand.” Even Paul Nelson, in his otherwise scathing two-star review for Rolling Stone, paused his evisceration long enough to spare one vital organ: “‘Every Grain of Sand’ is something special: the ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ of Bob Dylan’s Christian period. . . . For a moment or two, he touches you, and the gates of heaven dissolve into a universality that has nothing to do with most of the LP” (Nelson). Wordsmiths like me tend to focus disproportionately on lyrics, but it’s important to note that much of the song’s appeal has always been musical. Nelson was an avowed apostate when it came to Dylan’s born-again songs, but he was sonically enraptured by “Every Grain of Sand”: “Dylan’s beautifully idiosyncratic harmonica playing has metamorphosed into an archetype that pierces the heart and moistens the eye” (Nelson). Likewise, for Paul Williams, the most sensitive and perceptive commentator on Dylan’s Christian music, the magic of “Every Grain of Sand” comes primarily through the music. Unlocking the song’s power in the second volume of his Performing Artist series, Williams writes, “The key to the performance is its motion: it moves like the sea, forth and back and forth and back, filled with a quality of restfulness but never resting” (205). The rhythms of those motions have shifted over time—from the official release on Shot of Love (1981), to the demo on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (1991), to the rehearsal version on Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 (2017), to the most recent live incarnations in 2021. But the musical power of “Every Grain of Sand” to enthrall listeners has continued undiminished for generations.  I love the touching story Laura Tenschert tells about “Every Grain of Sand” in the first season of her fantastic Definitely Dylan radio show and podcast. She recalls growing up in Switzerland and singing in a church choir. When she was sixteen her music teacher decided to have the group perform some of Dylan’s Christian songs, so he gave her Shot of Love and recommended she learn “Every Grain of Sand.” She had never heard the song at that point, and she admits to having a general aversion to Christian rock. Nevertheless, she recounts,

I took that cassette tape [. . .] and I listened to it at home—and it completely blew me away! I’m not even sure whether my English was good enough at the time to completely understand all the lyrics. But I remember that I was completely spellbound by the song and its imagery. Who knew that a harmonica could sound like that—you know, like actually good and expressive and melodic, instead of just shrill. I don’t want to be corny and say “the rest is history.” But let’s just say that there is a very direct line that leads from that moment of me hearing “Every Grain of Sand” to me being here on the radio talking about Bob Dylan every week. In the words of “What Can I Do for You?” this song “Every Grain of Sand” “opened up a door that couldn’t be shut and it opened it up so wide.” (Tenschert)

Before playing it on air, she introduces “Every Grain of Sand” as “the song that made me a Dylan fan.” The song has been winning fans and captivating listeners for four decades now, and it is sure to convert more devotees on the 2021 tour.

Apparently the first person caught in the song’s spell was Dylan himself. In a discussion with Bill Flanagan about the craft of songwriting, Dylan singles out “Every Grain of Sand” as a mystery that simply arrived from nowhere. His job was to remain receptive and committed long enough for the song to finish writing itself. He told Flanagan,

Sometimes you’ll write a song where you’ll just stick with it and get it done. You’ll feel that it’s not coming from anyplace, but it’s for you to do. There’s nothing to base it on. You’re in an area where there isn’t anybody there and never was. So you just have to be real sensitive to where you’re walking at the time. Not try to go one way or the other, just stay balanced and finish it. “Every Grain of Sand” is a song like that. Writing that song was like, “This is something that I’m going to have to stay steady with.” Otherwise it could get out of hand. You must keep it balanced. And there’s no footnotes around. It’s the kind of area where there’s no precedent for it. (831)

Dylan doesn’t often praise his own songs in such exalted fashion, so he clearly finds something extraordinary about “Every Grain of Sand.” He stresses the unprecedented nature of the piece, springing from “an area where there isn’t anybody there and never was,” covering a subject for which “there’s no footnotes around.” But critics have traced several footprints behind “Every Grain of Sand” and provided footnotes leading back chiefly to the Bible and William Blake.

In his short but influential book The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, Bert Cartwright identifies numerous scriptural allusions in “Every Grain of Sand.” Michael Gray builds upon Cartwright’s work and extends well beyond it in Song & Dance Man III, devoting an entire chapter to explicating “Every Grain of Sand” and teasing out the eclectic threads of its rich intertextual tapestry. In the first refrain the singer declares: “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” The second refrain offers this variation: “That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.” And the final refrain offers a third set of similes: “Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Within the context of Shot of Love, “the Master” unmistakably refers to God, and the imagery comes from the Gospels. Matthew reports Jesus as saying: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore” (10:29-31). The scriptural antecedent for the title image comes from David in Psalms: “How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand” (139:17-18). So far, so good: the song would appear to fit squarely within Dylan’s Christian oeuvre, espousing faith in God’s omnipotence and omniscience.

However, the song owes just as many lyrical debts to William Blake, who uses the scriptures as leaping-off points into the mystic. Blake inspired the Beats with his visionary poetics, and Dylan’s initial exposure probably came from Allen Ginsberg. “Every Grain of Sand” reflects noticeable influence from Blake’s shorter lyrics and self-described “songs.” The most direct echo comes from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” which begins:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. (Blake 209)

Blake’s focus is less on divine power than on the powerful potential of human perception. Michael Gray makes a compelling argument that “it is William Blake who, re-writing the Bible in his own unique way, hovers all around Bob Dylan’s song in relation to its themes, its language and the rhythms of that language.” Gray further observes, “Blake’s interest in taking biblical text and flying it to mystical heights is evident everywhere in his work, as is Bob Dylan’s interest in that work by his mystic predecessor; and never more so than around the texts behind ‘Every Grain of Sand’” (412). The song is no mere scriptural pastiche or restatement of pious platitudes. Like Blake, Dylan strains against the boundaries of conventional morality. And unlike Dylan’s earlier proselytizing work, which sometimes pushed listeners away with its judgmental sermonizing or zealous proclamations of righteousness, “Every Grain of Sand” is a humble, vulnerable, conflicted, ambivalent description of spiritual crisis. The singer is haunted by his past, his present strength is flagging, his future pathway is uncertain, and God’s grace and mercy do not seem guaranteed at all.

The dramatic conflict in “Every Grain of Sand” hinges upon a tension between looking back and moving forward. The singer begins with his eyes fixed toward the past and filled with tears of shame and regret: “In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need / When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed.” What a vivid image! The singer has much to confess, and the memory of his prodigious sins makes him cry so much it’s as if he’s standing in a puddle of his own tears. He invokes familiar Christian imagery and tenets of belief, but he applies them in unorthodox ways. Pools typically have positive Christian associations with baptism, but a pool of tears troubles the waters. Similarly, confession and repentance are supposed to be crucial first steps in moving forward on the righteous path toward God. In this song, however, confession seems oriented backwards, functioning more as an impediment than a catalyst for personal progress. The singer’s excessive tears threaten to wash away his seeds along with his sins, inhibiting his growth by making rejuvenation impossible. He concedes as much in the second verse: “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake.” Don’t look back. The song suggests that dwelling too long or obsessively upon the past prevents one from moving forward. The time of confession, it would seem, is coming to an end. In retrospect, Dylan appears to be signaling a pivot in his spiritual and artistic journey. “Every Grain of Sand” was the last song on the last album of his Christian trilogy. Before recording Shot of Love in spring 1981, he had already embarked upon “A Musical Retrospective Tour” in fall 1980, where he began reintegrating secular music into his setlists. Religious themes, imagery, and warnings continued to preoccupy him on Infidels (1983) and have periodically resurfaced ever since, but this song seems to mark an important milestone and turning point in Dylan’s road.

“Every Grain of Sand” is not a metaphysical battle with God so much as a civil war between opposed selves. The singer reports, “There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere / Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.” Dylan the Gemini has made numerous references over the years to his struggle with adversarial alter-egos. For instance, the line “I fought with my twin, that enemy within” in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat)”; or “Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within” in “Jokerman”; or “I and I / One says to the other no man sees my face and lives” in “I and I.” Given the theme of dueling dual selves, and given the knowing games Dylan sometimes plays with acronyms (cf. BOB, JWH, TOOM), I wonder if he was conscious of the fact that the initials for “Every Grain of Sand” is EGOS. I and I indeed! “Every Grain of Sand” stages an internal battle for the soul of the singer, a “psychomachia” where the singer’s Good Angel struggles against his Bad Angel. It is not clear which of these figures is represented by the “dying voice within me.” The song raises a slew of essential questions with life-altering stakes: Does the dying voice emanate from the “good” self or the “bad,” from Cain or Abel? Will he confess and dwell upon his former sins? Will he backslide and return to committing those sins [cf. “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame / And every time I pass that way I always hear my name”]? Is the dying voice better left for dead? Or is the dead voice in need of resuscitation, heeding the vocation of his true calling? “Every Grain of Sand” implies so many fundamental questions, but definitive answers elude the listener and interpreter just as surely as they elude the singer himself. Yet the singer must pursue them. Everything hinges upon the decisions he makes at this pivotal moment and the pathway he chooses. The fate of his soul hangs in the balance.

For a song poised upon a fulcrum point, it seems telling that Dylan has been torn over how to end the song. On Shot of Love he sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” I’m frankly not sure what that first line is supposed to mean, but it is the copyrighted lyric posted on his official website. The sentiment is clearer in the demo version of the song released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, as well as the rehearsal version on Trouble No More, where he sings, “I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan.” He retains this lyrical variation for the 2021 tour. The invocation of “a perfect finished plan” is more readily recognizable as an expression of faith in God’s divine plan, the belief that, no matter how bad things get, everything happens for a reason and ultimately serves a higher holy purpose. That said, we should not pay so much attention to the affirmative “perfect finished plan” that we forget the outcome is still irresolutely “hanging in the balance.” Gray wisely guides us back to the full context of that sparrow reference in Matthew. In this passage Jesus commands confession and obedience—or else:

Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword. (10:31-34).

Gray comments, “Far from throwing God’s infinite care over every tiny creature in his universe, as the early part of his speech might imply, it’s a severe and conditional vision: it mentions the sparrows only to devalue them in the comparison with men and it excludes from God’s care all but true Christian believers” (405). In “Every Grain of Sand” the singer may be trying to obey God’s commandments, at least some of the time, and he pledges faith in the Master’s “perfect finished plan.” He just doesn’t know if that plan will end up with him on the saved or damned side of the ledger sheet. It could still go either way, for the singer and by extension for his listeners, in 1981 and in 2021.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the deliberate dramaturgy of Dylan’s setlists. The prompting came first from Erin Callahan and Court Carney, who are editing a forthcoming collection of essays on the subject. There have also been a lot of discussions on this topic led by Laura Tenschert on Definitely Dylan and her affiliated Patreon group. In particular, her treatment of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Baby Blue” as bookends for Shadow Kingdom (listen to the podcast “Shadow Kingdom: A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) has helped to clarify my thoughts about Dylan’s setlists on the fall 2021 leg of Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour. The reintroduction of “Every Grain of Sand” is no coincidence. The song is highly compatible with the Rough and Rowdy Ways-centric setlist, and it serves a pivotal function as culmination of and release from the theatrical experience Dylan and crew deliver each night.

Figure 2: Title Page for Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake (1826 edition)

What summoned the song up from the depths of Dylan’s deep back catalogue? In part it must have been auguries of experience from William Blake. After decades of unnamed influence, and following a direct allusion to Blake’s “The Tyger’” in Tempest’s closing song “Roll on John,” Blake finally earns a public shout-out by name in “I Contain Multitudes,” the opening track on Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the first song from the album played in each of the 2021 concerts. The title “I Contain Multitudes” is taken from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and a number of other influences across the cultural spectrum get named in the song. He numbers Blake among the multitudes: “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake / I have no apologies to make.” Two things are interesting about this allusion. The first is that he hacks off half of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience [see Figure 2 above]. Dylan is long past innocence at this point, and so are his audiences. In fact, Rough and Rowdy Ways might just as well have been titled Songs of Experience. The other interesting thing is that second line: “I have no apologies to make.” This might seem at first like a non sequitur, but it is not. “I have no apologies to make” is a paradoxical echo of the opening of Dylan’s most Blakean song, “Every Grain of Sand”: “In the time of my confession.” From confession in 1981 to no apologies in 2021. Except that Dylan’s dramaturgical sequencing of the setlist actually reverses the trajectory, going from the braggadocio of “I have no apologies to make” early in the show to the contrite “In the time of my confession” by the end. Dylan’s individual songs function as scenes within the dramatic arc of his live performances. The songs build upon and respond to one another—reinforcing and refuting, complementing and complicating—working in tandem to create a holistic theatrical experience for each show. “Every Grain of Sand” means one thing considered in isolation, it means something different reconsidered in context with the other songs on Shot of Love, and it sends new and distinct signals in live performance as epilogue for the 2021 concerts.

In “Thunder on the Mountain” (a staple of Dylan’s tours in recent years, but absent from the 2021 shows) he declares, “I’ve already confessed—no need to confess again.” But the hour of his (and our) deepest need seems to have returned with a vengeance since 2020, and accordingly an impulse for confession has crept back into Dylan’s most recent work. Two other Rough and Rowdy Ways songs in the setlist explicitly use the word. The magisterial “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”—the anchor of the 2021 shows—foregrounds confession from the start: “McKinley hollered—McKinley squalled / Doctor said McKinley—death is on the wall / Say it to me if you got something to confess.” The setlist moves from deathbed confession to a raunchier roadhouse variation in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the song that immediately precedes “Every Grain of Sand” in concert. There the singer leers at a “Transparent woman in a transparent dress / It suits you well—I must confess.” Feeling an urge to confess again, the time is ripe for a revival of “Every Grain of Sand.”

Dylan could have placed “Every Grain of Sand” anywhere in the setlist, so why give it pride of place as the concert’s closer? He probably doesn’t overthink these things. It felt right: good enough for him. Ah, the hours we readers and contributors to the Dylan Review could save if that were simply good enough for us! But it’s not, obviously, and it never will be. Dylan creates; Dylanologists review. His intuitive calculus may have been primarily musical. He described the song as a “mood piece” to Flanagan (832), so maybe it simply fit the mood he wanted to end the show with. Whether he arrived at this decision intellectually or instinctively (one assumes the latter), he must have sensed what a compatible bookend “Every Grain of Sand” as closer makes with the tour’s regular opener, “Watching the River Flow.”

Many common lyrical elements run through both songs. First let’s dig into the sand. Alongside associations with God’s particularized knowledge discussed earlier, sand is also associated very closely with time, as measured by sand falling through an hour-glass. The most overt reference to time in “Every Grain of Sand” comes in the line: “The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way.” Really, though, the entire song is a meditation upon the ravages of time, and the competing impulses to return to the past or move ahead into the future. The sands of time play a crucial part in “Watching the River Flow,” too. This song also features a singer who is stuck between his current life and his next life. He dreams of returning to the city and reuniting with his distant love. The song is rollicking and upbeat, and the lyrics contain lots of movement: trucks roll, birds fly, winds blow, and the river ceaselessly flows. But not the singer. He is a stone gathering moss. He makes his way from a café to the riverside, but that’s as much get-up-and-go as he’s got. Instead, as he repeatedly declares, “I’ll sit down on this bank of sand / And watch the river flow.” This water song is no “Proud Mary” “rollin’ down the river,” but rather “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” resituated on a sandy riverbank. In a sense the concert travels a great distance only to return full circle where it began: from the sandy riverbank of “Watching the River Flow” to the sandy seashore of “Every Grain of Sand.” No dancing beneath a diamond sky on circus sands here. These bookend songs feature characters whose hour-glasses are clogged.

Yet “Every Grain of Sand” has more forward momentum than “Watching the River Flow,” even if moving forward does not necessarily equate to hopeful progress. Lines like “every time I pass that way” and “onward in my journey” suggest a character who has gotten off his knees and has begun to walk again, even if he’s not yet sure where he’s going. The final verse of “Every Grain of Sand” begins, “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Many listeners, myself included, immediately think of the kitschy poem “Footprints in the Sand” when hearing these lines. Such an association presupposes that the entity following the singer is a supportive Lord. However, given the moral ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding the singer’s fate, listeners shouldn’t take salvation for granted. Those ancient footsteps behind him might just as well be hellhounds on his trail. Or is time catching up with him? At this point in the concert, maybe we should hear an echo in the “ancient footsteps” of “Every Grain of Sand” back to the “ancient footprints” in an earlier song (and exact contemporary with “Watching the River Flow”), “When I Paint My Masterpiece”: “Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble / Ancient footprints are everywhere.” Time eventually reduces all human constructions to rubble; give it some more time and the rubble will erode into sand (ask Ozymandias). Or maybe those foreboding footfalls come from time’s enforcer, the Man in the Long Black Coat, the Grim Reaper himself; better known in this concert as Black Rider: “Black Rider Black Rider all dressed in black / I’m walking away and you try to make me look back.” [Hint: don’t look back]. This reading resonates with the tour poster, which adapts the cover for The Shadow #96, featuring dapper Death calling to collect his next victim [see Figure 3 below]. In 2020 this same modified image was used for the cover of the “False Prophet” single, another song filled with Blakean references as Bob Jope shows in his piece for the website Untold Dylan.

Figure 3: Cover for The Shadow #96 (July 15, 1942) by Maxwell Grant

Speaking of shadows, those footprints in the sand might just as well come from the adversarial shadow self, since doppelgängers always crave to track down their doubles. After all, the precise phrasing in “Every Grain of Sand” is “Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Is the dying voice within now externalized in the form of a stalking alter-ego, shadowing the singer and gaining on him from behind? “You could almost think that you’re seeing double.” Rob Reginio drew my attention to another Blake allusion from “My Spectre,” encompassing the shadow self as well as the dying voice and pool of tears:

My Spectre around me night & day

Like a Wild beast guards my way

My Emanation far within

Weeps incessantly for my Sin. (Blake 195)

The spectral shadow self also intermingles suggestively with the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour poster, where the creepy skeleton in the foreground is rendered even more menacing by his silhouette shaped like a hanged man [see Figure 1]. How’s that for hanging in the balance? Musically, even without Dylan’s beautiful harmonica in 2021, “Every Grain of Sand” is so serene, viscerally imparting a sense of calm tranquility. Lyrically, however, it elicits starkly different sensations, dramatizing a singer who might be escaping on the run or might be stumbling into an ambush.

Confession: I think too much about Dylan’s words. If this is a sin, my punishment is that I couldn’t be content with my initial elation as I walked out of the Aronoff Center into downtown Cincinnati after seeing Dylan in concert on November 9, 2021. I felt what others felt—what a gift! My immediate sensation after hearing the final song was like I had just received a fast-acting inoculation against danger, bitterness, despair, and loneliness. I walked away feeling healed by “Every Grain of Sand,” which is exactly the power Paul Williams ascribes to the song: “‘Healing’ is an appropriate word. The song is intensely personal, for listener and singer both; the intimacy of confession, the honest sharing of a sense of sinfulness and despair, creates a possibility of genuine assurance. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ cuts through doctrine and proselytizing and speaks directly to the listener’s need” (205). The listener’s need: I suppose I heard what I needed to hear. As we’re all learning, however, vaccines (including shots of love?) begin to lose some of their efficacy over time. I haven’t lost the magic of that night’s performance; if anything, in listening to subsequent concerts I have become increasingly awed by the time-defying, life-renewing power of Bob Dylan as a live performer. Nevertheless, my understanding of “Every Grain of Sand” has become more complicated and shaded the longer and deeper I’ve contemplated what it says, and what it doesn’t say.

“Every Grain of Sand” actually doesn’t say that everything is going to be okay, certainly not for everyone. Describing the effect of “Every Grain of Sand” on the first night at the Beacon Theatre (November 19, 2021), Anne Margaret Daniel writes, “His performance of it now is something beyond, and above, elegy: a goodbye that has its original meaning of God be with you” (Daniel). God will certainly be with us, according to the song, but we might not like what God does with us. Dylan evidently believes firmly in God, believes in a divine plan, and believes that individual and collective fates are governed by the Master’s hand. But that Master has a right hand and a left: he has a plan that saves some and damns others. One doesn’t have to interpret the song within the strict Christian framework in which it was written to hear its contemporary relevance. Things might be all right. They might be getting better. Or they might be getting worse. As Andrew Muir recently reminded me, “Every Grain of Sand” echoes not only the Bible and Blake, but also Hamlet’s moment of acceptance, when he recognizes he can neither predict nor fully control his destiny: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now; yet it will come. The readiness is all” (Shakespeare 5.2.197-200).

A full appreciation of “Every Grain of Sand” means acknowledging both its exquisite, uplifting beauty and its irresolute, unsettling uncertainty. These same Janus-faced qualities and animating tensions are on forceful display throughout Dylan’s recent recordings and live performances. The title Rough and Rowdy Ways sounds to me like a road sign at another Dylan crossroads: the rough road of righteousness heading one direction, the rowdy road of iniquity heading the other. It’s the location and condition of some of Dylan’s greatest work, including “Every Grain of Sand,” in both its nascent form from the evangelical period and its resurrected form by an octogenarian who has apparently been gulping from the fountain of youth. Listeners may or may not share Dylan’s theological framing of the problem, but by this point in the pandemic—to name only the most immediate and pervasive of our shared threats—we all know what life lived “hanging in the balance” feels like. We know the steady accumulation of troubles like grains of sand into a heap, as Clov describes it at the beginning of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause.] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. [Pause.] I can’t be punished any more” (93). Dylan cannot cure all that troubles us, but he sure has been a welcome, reliable, generous, sure-footed guide “in the sorrow of the night.”

 Those dangers still await audiences as they exit the auditorium and return to the world outside. But inside the world he crafts for us in the theater, Dylan gives us a light to take with us back out into the darkness. Ultimately, I find myself as a listener thinking about “Every Grain of Sand” in much the same way Dylan described it as the songwriter: “‘What’s this like?’ Well, it’s not like anything. ‘What does it represent?’ Well, you don’t even know. All you know is that it’s a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you can let it go” (Flanagan 832). Dylan conjures the mood, finishes the performance, then lets us go, leaving us to meditate upon what we’ve experienced, and releasing him to rev up the tour bus and head down the road to dispense his musical potions again.

 

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett. Faber and Faber, 1986, pp. 89-134.

Blake, William. “Auguries of Innocence.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 209-12.

—. “My Spectre.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 195-96.

Cartwright, Bert. The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. Wanted Man, 1985.

Daniel, Anne Margaret. “A Triumphant Bob Dylan Comes Home to New York City.” Hot Press (20 November 2021), https://www.hotpress.com/music/a-triumphant-bob-dylan-comes-home-to-new-york-city-22881777, accessed 26 November 2021.

Dylan, Bob. “Black Rider.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/black-rider/, accessed 27 November 2021.

—. “Every Grain of Sand.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/every-grain-sand/, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/goodbye-jimmy-reed/, accessed 27 November 2021.

—. “I and I.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/i-and-i/, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “I Contain Multitudes.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/i-contain-multitudes/, accessed 26 November 2021.

—. “Jokerman.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/jokerman/, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/key-west-philosopher-pirate/, accessed 27 November 2021.

—. “Watching the River Flow.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/watching-river-flow/, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “What Can I Do for You?” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/what-can-i-do-you/, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/when-i-paint-my-masterpiece/, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat).” The Official Bob Dylan Website, http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/where-are-you-tonight-journey-through-dark-heat/, accessed 25 November 2021.

Flanagan, Bill. Interview with Bob Dylan (March 1985). Every Mind Polluting Word: Assorted Bob Dylan Utterances, edited by Artur Jarosinski, Don’t Ya Tell Henry, 2006, pp. 831-40.

Gray, Michael. Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. Cassell, 2000.

The Holy Bible. King James Version.

Jope, Bob. “False Prophet: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’” Untold Dylan (2 October 2020), https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/16858, accessed 20 December 2021.

Muir, Andrew. Personal correspondence with the author (5 December 2021).

Nelson, Paul. Shot of Love Album Review. Rolling Stone (15 October 1981), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/shot-of-love-102769/, accessed 25 November 2021.

Reginio, Robert. Personal correspondence with the author (6 December 2021).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Second Quarto, 1604-05. Arden Shakespeare Third Series, eds. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Bloomsbury, 2006.

Tenschert, Laura. “Season 1, Episode 12: Easter Special.” Definitely Dylan (1 April 2018), https://www.definitelydylan.com/listen?offset=1523203200527, accessed 26 November 2021.

—. “Shadow Kingdom: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Definitely Dylan (14 September 2021), https://www.definitelydylan.com/listen/2021/9/14/shadow-kingdom-a-midsummer-nights-dream, accessed 26 November 2021.

Williams, Paul. Bob Dylan, Performing Artist, 1974-1986: The Middle Years. Omnibus, 2004.

Anne Margaret Daniel teaches at the New School University in New York City and at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. Her essays on literature, music, books, baseball, and culture have appeared in books, critical editions, magazines, and journals including The New York Times, Hot Press, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement. Her edition of the last complete short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, was published by Scribner / Simon & Schuster in 2017. In spring 2017, Daniel taught the first course at a New York university in the combined arts and letters of Bob Dylan. She is currently at work on a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald and is co-editing with Jackson R. Bryer the letters of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

Charles O. Hartman has published seven books of poetry, including New & Selected Poems from Ahsahta (2008), as well as books on jazz and song (Jazz Text) and on computer poetry (Virtual Muse). His Free Verse (1981) is still in print, and Verse: An Introduction to Prosody came out from Wiley-Blackwell in 2015. He is Poet in Residence at Connecticut College. He plays jazz guitar.

Graley Herren is a Professor of English at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is the author of books on Samuel Beckett and Don DeLillo, and he edited five volumes in the Text & Presentation book series. He regularly teaches courses on Bob Dylan and has also published multiple articles on Dylan. In addition, he serves on the executive board for the annual Comparative Drama Conference.

John Hunt is a reformed poet / digital product manager sheltered in place with his family in the “wild animal luxury” of a mysterious land known to certain initiates as Central Illinois. He was transfixed at a young age by Al Kooper’s organ playing on “Like a Rolling Stone” and Johnny Cash’s voice on “One Piece at a Time.”

Tim Hunt is University Professor Emeritus at Illinois State University. His academic publications include The Textuality of Soulwork: Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose (2014) and The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1988-2001). His most recent poetry collection, Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes (2018), features poems on American music of the 1950s and 1960s.

Richard F. Thomas is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard  University, where his teaching and research interests are focused on Hellenistic Greek and Roman poetry, intertextuality, translation and translation theory, the reception of classical literature in all periods, and the works of Bob Dylan. He has authored or edited a dozen volumes and over 100 articles and reviews. Publications on Dylan include Why Bob Dylan Matters (Dey Street Books, 2017), Bob Dylan’s Performance Artistry (Oral Tradition 22.1 2007), co-edited with Catharine Mason, and the articles “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan” Oral Tradition 22.1 (2007), “Shadows are Falling: Virgil, Radnóti, and Dylan, and the Aesthetics of Pastoral Melancholy” Rethymnon Classical Studies 3 (2007).

Young Goodman Dylan: Chronicles at the Crossroads

ARTICLE BY Graley Herren, Xavier University

Abstract: Although usually categorized as a memoir, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One, is better understood as a work of autobiographical fiction. Like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dylan uses a fictional avatar (referred to here as Young Goodman Dylan) to explore key junctures in his development as an artist. In the “New Morning” chapter of Chronicles, Dylan draws heavily upon the literary and musical trope of selling one’s soul to the Devil at the crossroads. Dylan the Chronicler depicts Young Goodman Dylan at a crossroads where he must choose between collaborating with Archibald MacLeish on the diabolical play Scratch or remaining out of the public spotlight to protect his family. On the surface, this conflict is depicted as a battle of darkness versus light, with the Everyman figure choosing the path of light and family over the path of darkness and public reengagement. However, Dylan the Chronicler complicates this moral dilemma by equating darkness with truth in this case, and light with an abnegation of artistic responsibility. Elderly Dylan’s ambivalence toward his younger self’s decisions is epitomized in his underwhelming assessment of the album New Morning.

Keywords: Chronicles, Volume One; crossroads; Devil; Dylan, Bob; MacLeish, Archibald; morality play; Scratch

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature almost entirely for his work as a songwriter and performing artist. However, he is also the author of one great literary work of fiction—and no, I’m not talking about Tarantula. I am referring to Chronicles, Volume One. By labeling the work fiction, I do not mean to pass negative judgment on Dylan as a plagiarist, although it is well documented by now that he “borrowed” scenes and passages from dozens of unattributed sources in the book. Far from dismissing Chronicles as a fraud, I admire it as a deeply truthful fiction. The book is best approached not as memoir but as Künstlerroman, an apprenticeship novel about the growth and development of an artist. The author Bob Dylan’s relationship to the character Bob Dylan in Chronicles is similar to James Joyce’s relationship to the character Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both protagonists bear striking resemblances to their authors, and both writers draw generously from their own lives for raw material. But these are fictions: highly selective, substantially reimagined, aesthetically stylized, deftly veiled self-portraits. As Timothy Hampton asserts in Bob Dylan’s Poetics, “To study Dylan’s art and its combinatory power, we need to take into account the different ways in which he uses the ‘I’ who appears in his compositions. This ‘I’ is, of course, a fiction. . . . It is a character that Dylan invents anew for each song. Sometimes that character knows many things. Sometimes it knows little. Sometimes it thinks it knows more than it does. Sometimes it says more than it knows” (18). The same holds true for Dylan’s depiction of “Dylan” in Chronicles.

One sign of the fictional status of Chronicles is the way in which Dylan bends his memories and molds his reconstructions to fit with preexisting myths, legends, archetypes, and literary tropes. A paradigm he uses to great effect in Chronicles is the crossroads. On multiple occasions, he stages life-altering encounters where the protagonist stakes his soul and must choose a path toward either salvation or damnation. The crossroads tradition has many variations and is centuries old. Perhaps the oldest example comes in Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus kills his father where three roads meet, sealing his fate before completing the prophecies down the road to Thebes. In medieval morality plays the trope involved an Everyman figure tempted toward Hell by figures of Vice, but ultimately choosing the pathway to Heaven pointed out by figures of Virtue. Later in the Renaissance, most famously in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, hubris leads Faustus to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for secret knowledge and power. In early American literature the classic expression of the trope is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” where a young Puritan is torn between staying at home with his young wife or wandering into the dark woods with a distinctly American Devil associated with the young country’s original sins. The most famous example from twentieth-century American literature is “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét, where Jabez Stone of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, sells his soul to the Devil but then convinces famous orator and politician Daniel Webster to defend him. I don’t know if Dylan has read or seen any of these works, but he has clearly absorbed the tradition from somewhere. Of course, we know that he was intimately familiar with the blues tradition of selling one’s soul at the crossroads. Robert Johnson allegedly did so in exchange for superhuman musical gifts, inspiring songs like “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” and “Cross Road Blues.” Dylan’s own most extensive and slyly subversive treatment of the crossroads theme occurs in the third chapter of Chronicles titled “New Morning.”

In this chapter the protagonist—let’s think of him as Young Goodman Dylan—finds himself at the crossroads after his motorcycle accident, when he stopped touring and started focusing instead on his new marriage and family. The young husband and father saw the choices before him in stark moral terms of good and evil, the pathway of light splitting off sharply from the pathway of darkness. However, it is important to draw distinctions between the protagonist’s perspective and that of his author. The older Dylan who writes Chronicles takes a longer view and has a fuller sense of where these divergent paths lead. His quasi-autobiographical younger self chooses a path away from celebrity and public engagement in favor of home, family, and some semblance of privacy. Old Dylan defends those decisions as right at the time; but he also foreshadows different decisions at crossroads farther down the road, leading him eventually back to the world stage.

Archibald MacLeish is a crucial figure in Dylan’s crossroads morality play. Prior to the publication of Chronicles, most readers knew very little about the failed collaboration between the two, other than the fact that a few songs written for MacLeish’s play eventually made their way onto Dylan’s next album New Morning. It was therefore a surprise when Dylan chose to feature MacLeish so prominently. Factual inaccuracies abound in Dylan’s reconstruction of their encounters. He sets their first meeting in the summer of 1968, but Clinton Heylin shows that it couldn’t possibly have happened before late 1969 or early 1970 (402). He gets important biographical information about MacLeish blatantly wrong, like identifying him as a West Point classmate of General MacArthur (that was actually Carl Sandburg). And he rips off lines from MacLeish’s poetry and prose and falsely presents them as snatches of dialogue between the elder statesman and the upstart crow.[1] Dylan’s depictions are completely inconsistent with contemporary accounts. In his letters, MacLeish insists that Dylan had lost focus and suffered from writer’s block; and in his autobiography, producer Stuart Ostrow describes Dylan as drunk, rude, lazy, and duplicitous throughout the ill-fated collaboration.[2] In short, the account in Chronicles is unreliable in terms of factual accuracy. As a work of crossroads mythology, however, the chapter is tremendously effective and revealing.

Dylan’s creative decision to roll back the initial meeting to 1968 has several effects. It locates the action in the most tumultuous year of Sixties unrest. Dylan describes this context in classic crossroads terminology as putting his soul at risk:

The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo were imprisoning my soul—nauseating me—civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions—the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling—the contra communes—the lying, noisy voices—the free love, the anti-money system movement—the whole shebang. (109)

Set against the general turmoil, Dylan also experienced a great personal loss with the death of his father in the summer of 1968. At the dawn of the “New Morning” chapter he recalls, “I had gone back to the town of my early years in a way I could never have imagined—to see my father laid to rest. Now there would be no way to say what I was never capable of saying before” (107). Abe Zimmerman’s untimely death at the age of 56 led his grieving son to conclude “that my father was the best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of me, but he didn’t understand me” (108). Dylan claims he returned home from the funeral to find an invitation letter waiting for him from MacLeish. This would have made Dylan 27 years old, the fateful year that claimed Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and others; the same age when the Devil’s bill came due for Robert Johnson. With chaos and death as his harbingers, enter the Father of Night.

Dylan draws a sharp contrast between humble Abe Zimmerman and the celebrated patrician poet who invites him for an artistic collaboration:

MacLeish, Poet Laureate of America—one of them. Carl Sandburg, poet of the prairie and the city, and Robert Frost, the poet of dark meditations were the others. . . . These three, the Yeats, Browning, and Shelley of the New World, were gigantic figures, had defined the landscape of twentieth-century America. They put everything in perspective. Even if you didn’t know their poems, you knew their names. (107)

Dylan’s reverence may be sincere, but from a literary perspective he is also at pains to establish the morality play parameters of the encounter. He depicts himself as an innocent, an amateur hack and overmatched schlemiel compared to MacLeish. There is doubtlessly a dimension of ethnic sensitivity and defensiveness on display here. Timothy Hampton recognizes this same dynamic at play in Chapter Two of Chronicles, “The Lost Land.” Dylan recalls his awe and envy in the presence of folk singer Mike Seeger. He reflects, “What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes, in his genetic makeup. Before he was even born, this music had to be in his blood” (71). According to Hampton,

Seeger’s parents were distinguished musicologists and composers; his father was a Harvard professor. Dylan paints him as an aristocrat. Like a member of the nobility in some ancient kingdom, Seeger embodies his greatness and identity. The music is essential to his very being, ‘in his blood.’ A member of the WASP elite, he has been raised in the culture of left-wing folk music. He is tradition, in several senses of the word. For Dylan, a provincial and a Jew, such ease and familiarity seem beyond reach, no less than nobility is beyond the reach of the peasant. (26)

Hampton’s interpretation is persuasive and applies equally well to Dylan’s depiction of MacLeish. The young poet respects his elder for his artistic integrity and significant accomplishments, but he is also acutely aware of (and intimidated by) his host’s aristocratic pedigree: “He had the aura of a governor, a ruler—every bit of him an officer—a gentleman of adventure who carried himself with the peculiar confidence of power bred of blood” (110).

Most of the elder poet’s erudite references sail over Dylan’s head, highlighting the chasm of wisdom and experience separating Dylan from his illustrious host. Young Goodman Dylan has lost his father and is seeking guidance from a mentor. He is the naïve and uninitiated Everyman. MacLeish possesses secret knowledge and power, and he uses it to lure Dylan down a potentially treacherous path, away from the storm shelter of family and back out into the maelstrom of a sordid and rapacious world. By dubbing MacLeish “the Poet Laureate of America,” he installs his elder as the embodiment of a nation then overtaken by forces of darkness.

The signs are subtle at first. Dylan describes MacLeish as “the poet of night stones and the quick earth” (107) and “the man of godless sands” (109). These are images taken from MacLeish’s own poetry, so Dylan the Chronicler has clearly done some homework. It is telling that he plucks out lines that connote dark magic. MacLeish needs somber songs for his latest play, and he thinks Dylan is the right man for the job. He suggests some diabolical titles, including “Red Hands,” “Lower World,” and “Father of Night.” Like any good Mephistopheles, MacLeish flatters and cajoles his mark. He tells the young poet how much he admires his work and how compatible he finds their views: “MacLeish tells me that he considers me a serious poet and that my work would be a touchstone for generations after me, that I was a postwar Iron Age poet but that I had seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era. He appreciated my songs because they involved themselves with society, that we had many traits and associations in common and that I didn’t care for things the way he didn’t care for them” (111-12). It’s a match made in Hell. Young Goodman Dylan catches a whiff of brimstone at the crossroads and hesitates to choose the path leading toward Scratch.

Dylan mentions the name of the play in passing and notes that it was based on a Stephen Vincent Benét story (108). But he never mentions the fact that the name “Scratch” is an alias for Satan, or that the play is about a man who is trying to win back his soul after selling it to Scratch. Dylan adopts the playwriting maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” He never directly announces the theme of confronting the Devil at the crossroads, but he dramatizes precisely that in scenes with MacLeish, where he “felt like two parts of my self were beginning to battle” (129). Young Goodman Dylan is flattered at first by the elder poet’s offer to collaborate, but he soon recoils from the temptation. In a particularly vivid passage, Dylan describes the apocalyptic vision of Scratch:

This play was dark, painted a world of paranoia, guilt and fear—it was all blacked out and met the atomic age head on, reeked of foul play. . . . The play spelled death for society with humanity lying facedown in its own blood. MacLeish’s play was delivering something beyond an apocalyptic message. Something like, man’s mission is to destroy the earth. MacLeish was signaling something through the flames. (113)

Dylan’s macabre distillation only tells half the story of Scratch. Yes, the Devil is given a platform in the play, and he lodges some scorching critiques of American hypocrisy, mendacity, violence, and ruthlessness. Old Scratch calls out Daniel Webster in particular, mocking him for selling out the abolitionist cause by accepting the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. Scratch delights in driving a wedge between the founding principles of Liberty and Union. However, it is important to note that Webster actually defeats the Devil in MacLeish’s play and wins back his client’s soul and his own. The play endorses Webster’s manifesto from the 1830 Webster-Hayne Debate: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” (Webster 144).[3] These are principles that Dylan supports, too. He declares, “Being born and raised in America, the country of freedom and independence, I had always cherished the values and ideals of equality and liberty. I was determined to raise my children with those ideals” (115). A fair reading of Scratch should place MacLeish and Dylan on the same side. So why does Young Goodman Dylan perceive MacLeish as an opponent and threat?

Throughout the chapter, Dylan stresses his fierce commitment to his new family. He had spent much of his youth running away from home, reinventing himself, rejecting his roots, crafting a mercurial persona always in flux which owed nothing to the bourgeois values hammered into him in Hibbing. But getting married, having kids, kicking his rock-n-roll habits, and settling down to clean country living had radically altered his perspective. As Dylan concedes in Chronicles, “Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me” (114). Abe Zimmerman’s death seemed to trigger an identity crisis in Dylan. Without his father around as embodiment of authority and model of assimilation, Dylan stopped rebelling and temporarily reinvented himself as his father’s son. It is shocking to read Dylan proclaim: “I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream” (117-18). How can the author of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” suddenly buy into this vanilla suburban fantasy, sleepwalking through the consumerist WASP American Dream? It is so transparently banal, and so contrary to the values he endorses in his adult life up to this point, that Dylan the Chronicler may be satirizing Dylan the Character here.

Nevertheless, the moral stakes are high, and Young Goodman Dylan sees them in black and white absolutes. In one of the most revealing passages of the chapter, he declares, “I wasn’t going to go deeper into the darkness for anybody. I was already living in the darkness. My family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all cost. That was where my dedication was, first, last and everything in-between. What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing” (123). The battle lines are drawn in stark terms: the family is light; the world is darkness; young Dylan embraces the light of family and rejects the darkness of the world. Simple. Way too simple. The 30-ish protagonist thinks he owes the world nothing, but his 60-ish chronicler knows better. MacLeish admired Dylan’s early work, and he beckoned him back out of exile. But Young Goodman Dylan shunned this calling in 1970. He conflated MacLeish’s offer with the pressures he felt from the public, the media, and fellow musicians to be their prophet and savior. He gave them his songs but they wanted his soul.

Or so the story goes. But even as Dylan delivers that narrative, he simultaneously undermines it. Take for instance the one time in Chronicles when Dylan quotes directly from Scratch. Having cast MacLeish in the role of the Devil trying to ensnare our young hero’s soul, Dylan selects a passage commenting upon the nature of evil. According to Dylan,

Scratch utters the lines, “I know there is evil in the world—essential evil, not the opposite of good or the defective of good but something to which good itself is an irrelevance—a fantasy. No one can live as long as I have, hear what I have heard and not know that. I know too—more precisely—I am ready to believe that there may be something in the world, someone, if you prefer—that purposes evil, that intends it.” (124)

Although he makes some minor errors in the transcription, Dylan’s quotation from the play is basically accurate (cf. Scratch 94-95), with one crucial exception: the lines he attributes to Scratch, the champion of darkness and despair, are in fact spoken by Daniel Webster, the defender of light and hope. This makes a big difference. The passage does not represent the Devil bragging about his evil stranglehold over the world; it is a rallying cry for the forces of light. But then Dylan inserts an ellipsis and continues on with the quotation: “‘ . . . powerful nations suddenly, without occasion, without apparent cause . . . decay. Their children turn against them. Their women lose their sense of being women. Their families disintegrate’” (124). Remarkably, none of this second half of the quotation appears in the play Scratch. My research so far has uncovered no source. I frankly don’t know where Dylan got this quotation. It smacks of the apocalyptic rhetoric of Hal Lindsey[4], but the passage may be entirely fabricated. In any case, it doesn’t come from Scratch. Why would Dylan insert this fake quotation? The invention is so egregious, and so easily detected by simply reading the play, I can only assume Dylan planted this false evidence knowing that it would be exposed as such. But to what end?

Dylan shares MacLeish’s concerns about America’s turmoil and what it may augur for the nation’s future. But look at the other worries voiced via ventriloquism in this fake quote: children rebelling, women getting lost, families falling apart. Young Goodman Dylan straightforwardly associates his family with all that was light, good, and true. Accordingly, he associates all rivals to the family as dark, evil, and false. Old Dylan has the advantage of hindsight, however. He can look back and see that his crossroads dilemmas are far more complicated, nuanced, and ambivalent. Black-and-white becomes tangled up in gray.

In one of the most telling passages of the “New Morning” chapter, Dylan admits that MacLeish was a truth teller. The elder poet was trying to communicate devastating truths, but the young family man was in no mood to hear them:

The play itself was conveying some devastating truth, but I was going to stay far away from that. Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house. Oedipus went looking for the truth and when he found it, it ruined him. It was a cruel horror of a joke. So much for the truth. I was gonna talk out of both sides of my mouth and what you heard depended on which side you were standing. If I ever did stumble on any truth, I was gonna sit on it and keep it down. (125-26)

The conventional binaries break down. MacLeish is on the side of darkness, but he is also on the side of truth. Dylan, on the other hand, stands in the light but sits on the truth. Oedipus pursued the truth no matter where it led, and it left him ruined. Young Goodman Dylan was determined not to make that same mistake, even if the cost was a temporary abdication of artistic responsibility by ignoring or suppressing the dark truths confronted in Scratch.

Dylan the Chronicler reinforces this view through his self-assessment of New Morning, a luminously titled album that signifies his choice of the light over the darkness but which he damns with faint praise. Dylan uses abandoned songs from the failed Scratch collaboration to form the nucleus of this 1970 album. He said no to MacLeish’s calling, but when producer Bob Johnston called to ask if Dylan wanted to make a new record, he answered yes. Apparently Young Goodman Dylan doesn’t see the outright contradiction here, but Old Dylan wants the reader to notice it: “Johnston asked over the phone if I was thinking about recording. Of course I was. As long as my records were still selling, why wouldn’t I be thinking of recording?” (134) Why wouldn’t he? Oh, yeah, because he’s just spent the whole chapter telling us how he’s trying to recede from the limelight into privacy and anonymity. Going back into the studio and releasing an album of original songs was an obvious stepping stone toward reengaging with the world. Either Dylan was too naïve at the time to see the gap between his rhetoric and his actions—or, what’s more likely, he was already beginning to feel an inner tug to return to public consciousness by sharing his art with the world. He takes steps toward that other road, the one he rejected with MacLeish, even as he continues telling himself that he is just a simple country husband and father now.

New Morning was a critical and commercial success, but Dylan himself doesn’t rate his effort so highly. These are modest songs, nothing as momentous and earth-shaking as his previous work, and he knows it. “Message songs? There weren’t any. Anybody listening for them would have to be disappointed” (138). Having produced previous works of genius, Dylan knows New Morning falls well short of that standard. “Maybe there were good songs in the grooves and maybe there weren’t—who knows? But they weren’t the kind where you hear an awful roaring in your head. I knew what those kind of songs were like and these weren’t them” (138). The album isn’t bad, and at times it’s pretty good. Something crucial is missing, though. As Paul Williams astutely observes, “New Morning is Bob Dylan pretending to be Bob Dylan, not in any obvious way . . . but in a very subtle way: he goes through all the motions and touches all the bases, but leaves out Ingredient X” (259-60). The first gentle breeze of inspiration may be stirring again, but Dylan admits that he is still a long way from the gale-force tempest: “It’s not like I hadn’t any talent, I just wasn’t feeling the full force of the wind. No stellar explosions. I was leaning against the console and listening to the playbacks. It sounded okay” (138). What Dylan leaves unsaid is that he would not feel the full force of those creative winds again until the marriage, for which he had put his career largely on hold, was falling apart. It may be the responsibility of a family man to head toward the light. It’s the responsibility of the artist, however, to descend into the darkness, navigate the lowlands of orphic mystery, confront inner demons and expose hard truths. Dylan isn’t ready to do that yet when MacLeish asks, and he is only capable of sidelong glances into the depths on New Morning. Still, certain signs suggest that he is beginning to sense the future direction of his art, after his season in the sun ends.

The dark linings can occasionally be glimpsed behind the silver-clouded songs on New Morning. A good example is “Time Passes Slowly.” Heylin cites this son as one of three (along with “New Morning” and “Father of Night”) which Dylan began composing for Scratch before withdrawing from the project (402). In its initial incarnation for the play, perhaps it was intended for Jabez Stone, the New Hampshire farmer who enjoys seven years of prosperity before Scratch returns to collect his soul. Within the context of New Morning, however, the song sounds like self-commentary on Dylan’s own rural exile and prolonged sabbatical from his artistic vocation. Everything seems idyllic at first:

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains

We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains

Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream

Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Pretty and peaceful, right? Yet the line about being “lost in a dream” hints at the illusory, ephemeral quality of such a life. It soon becomes clear that the wild fish isn’t the only one who has been captured, removed from the flow, suspended in time. How does it feel to be a stone that has stopped rolling? How does it feel to have found a home, no longer on your own, and yet still have no direction? It feels like this:

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town

Ain’t no reason to go to the fair

Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down

Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Sure, the singer has sloughed off the yoke of unwanted obligations; he no longer works on Maggie’s farm. But the idyllic is devolving into the merely idle, and Dylan knows that “Too much of nothing / Can make a man ill at ease.” In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks uses “Time Passes Slowly” to represent the deadly sin of sloth. He comments on the verse above: “This is obdurate, blockish, an evocation of a dangerous state of mind. Indifference can harden, before long, into something damnable” (126). Morality play conventions dictate that, in choosing the light over the darkness, Dylan selected the path toward salvation. However, this song sounds more like a seductively placid off-brand of damnation.

Dylan’s foreboding imagery is most insidious in the final verse, where the emphasis shifts from torpor to the inevitable passage of light into darkness and life into death:

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight

We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right

Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day

Time passes slowly and fades away

The singer must try awfully hard to remain on the so-called right path and to convince himself that he is happy with his new life. Summer isn’t over and the sun hasn’t set, but that emblematic rose at the end will not stay forever young. Laura Tenschert, host of the Definitely Dylan radio show and podcast, provocatively asks: “Is it time that’s fading like a wilting flower—or is it the singer, who somewhere in his subconscious might be feeling like he should be something else, maybe something more?” (Tenschert). In the alternate ending to an earlier version of “Time Passes Slowly” [included on Another Self Portrait (Bootleg Series Vol. 10)], Dylan paints his growing self-doubts in signature hues of light and darkness: “Like a cloud drifting over that covers the day / Time passes slowly then fades away.” As Tenschert perceptively observes of this conclusion, “He is literally throwing shade on the sunny disposition of the previous two verses” (Tenschert). The dissonant, contradictory, ambivalent undertone of “Time Passes Slowly” is representative of a subterranean current running throughout the album, troubling its deceptively bright tranquility. New Morning is not dark yet, but it’s getting there. The next intersection is already faintly visible on the horizon where Dylan will find himself again at the crossroads, forced to choose between staying or going, between devotion to family or sharing his unfettered art on the stages of the world.

Chapter Three of Chronicles ends by contrasting the fates of Dylan’s album and MacLeish’s play. The chronicler notes of New Morning, “All this was in what critics would later refer to as my ‘middle period’ and in many camps this record was referred to as a comeback album—and it was. It would be the first of many” (141). On the other hand, the play which first inspired those songs was ignored: “The MacLeish play Scratch opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre on May 6, 1971, and closed two days later on May 8” (141). A blues aficionado like Dylan surely knows that May 8th is Robert Johnson’s birthday, and that the patron saint of crossroads would have turned 60 the same day Scratch closed. The first time I read Chronicles as a memoir, this chapter’s conclusion felt like Dylan rubbing it in, as if to say, “See, Archie, my approach worked better than yours.” After coming to appreciate the “New Morning” chapter as a milestone in crossroads fiction, however, I now see my initial reaction was wrong. The salient point is that Dylan wasn’t ready to face dark truths and neither was the majority of the American public. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Dylan’s uplifting music was praised while MacLeish’s solemn play was panned. The relative success of New Morning compared to Scratch may constitute a minor victory of the light over the darkness, but that’s little consolation in the topsy-turvy moral universe of this chapter, since the victory of light goes hand in hand with the defeat of truth. Dylan the Chronicler might well feel embarrassed that a comparatively lightweight work like New Morning would be deemed successful while a mature work of devastatingly dark truths like Scratch folded within a week and was forgotten. Well, it had been forgotten, until Dylan situated it at the juncture of his own crossroads morality.

Works Cited

Cook, Edward M. “Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, and the ‘Borrowing’ Problem.” Ralph the Sacred River (June 3, 2010). Web. http://ralphriver.blogspot.com/2010/06/bob-dylan-carl-sandburg-and-problem.html. Accessed May 23, 2019.

Dylan, Bob. Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10. Columbia Records, 2013.

—. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

—. New Morning. Columbia Records, 1970.

—. “Time Passes Slowly.” 1970. Web. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/time-passes-slowly/. Accessed May 23, 2019.

—. “Too Much of Nothing.” 1967. Web. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/time-passes-slowly/. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Hampton, Timothy. Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work. Zone Books, 2019.

Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. Chicago Review Press, 2009.

Lindsey, Hal. The Late, Great Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1970.

—. Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1972.

MacLeish, Archibald. Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907 to 1982. Ed. R. H. Winnick. Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

—. Scratch. Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Ostrow, Stuart. Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ecco, 2003.

Tenschert, Laura. “Episode 11: Songs from the Threshold.” Definitely Dylan. Web. Accessed https://www.definitelydylan.com/listen/2018/3/25/episode-11-songs-from-the-threshold. April 25, 2019.

Warmuth, Scott. “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One.” New Haven Review (January 2008): 70-83.

Webster, Daniel. Speech of Mr. Webster, of Massachusetts [January 26 and 27, 1830]. The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Constitution: Selected Documents [1830]. Ed. Herman Belz. Liberty Fund, 2000.

Williams, Paul. Bob Dylan, Performing Artist: The Early Years (1960-1973). Omnibus Press, 1990.

[1] Scott Warmuth and Edward Cook have done more than any other investigators to discover and document the countless instances in Chronicles where Dylan alludes to, paraphrases, or outright plagiarizes passages from unacknowledged sources. For a distillation of Warmuth’s findings, including references to the MacLeish scenes (74-75), see his article “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One,” New Haven Review (January 2008): 70-83. For Cook’s specific references to the “New Morning” chapter, see his blogpost “Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, and the ‘Borrowing’ Problem,” Ralph the Sacred River (June 3, 2010).

[2] See Archibald MacLeish, Letter to Dorothy de Santillana (October 7, 1970), Letters of Archibald MacLeish, 1907 to 1982, ed. R. H. Winnick (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 430; and Stuart Ostrow, Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006), 59-62.

[3] In his Foreword to the published script of Scratch, MacLeish proposes that the tension between Liberty and Union continued to animate civic crises in contemporary America:

By 1970, however, though the Union still survived and slavery had—ostensibly—disappeared, it was no longer certain that the contradiction at the heart was healed. There were indications that it might have become more cancerous than in Webster’s day. Men on the contemporary left echoed the New England Abolitionists who put Liberty first and Union after, and were as ready as Abolitionists had ever been to bring the Republic down in the name of freedom. At the same time there were those on the contemporary right who repeated the Copperhead cries of Union first and Liberty nowhere, proposing to surrender human freedom itself to something they called law-and-order. (viii-ix)

These similarities inspired MacLeish to revisit his friend Stephen Vincent Benét’s mythical Webster with an eye and ear toward re-historicizing him in ways that spoke to the issues tearing the country apart in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

[4] During Dylan’s born-again Christian period, he was strongly influenced by the writings of Hal Lindsey. In The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), Lindsey interprets the Biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelations as prophecies that the end of times and the second coming of Christ are close at hand. Lindsey followed up this surprising best-seller with Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth (1972), where he identifies various infiltrations by the Father of Lies in contemporary society and proposes methods for combating the influence of the Devil.