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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Curtis. Decoding Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture. North Carolina: McFarland, 2019. 177 pp.

REVIEW BY John H. Serembus, Widener University

Whenever I read a review of a book I may be interested in, I like to know something about the reviewer so that I can put the review into context.  It is only fair, then, that I give you some details about my perspective on Dylan and my background.

First off, I am not a Dylan scholar.  Yet, at the same time, I am not merely a fan. I do possess all his albums in some form or other, I have attended twenty or so Dylan concerts over the years, and I have read a fair amount of books about and by Dylan. The relationship is more intimate than merely a fan though certainly less than a scholar. As a friend and colleague said to me in the 1980s, Bob Dylan has provided “the soundtrack for our lives.”

Secondly, I am a professor of Philosophy with a specialization in Logic and an abiding interest in its dark side — paradox. The former informs my review of the book. The latter explains my interest in Dylan.

The author, Jim Curtis, is an accomplished scholar and academician. One of the great strengths of the book is his Renaissance-like command of the materials of which he speaks as well as all things Dylan. Another great strength is that the author is literally a contemporary of Dylan. Born less than a year before Dylan, he grew up within the same cultural milieu as Dylan with similar influences and experiences. The rest of us (me, just barely) can only imagine what it was like to come of age in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Decoding Dylan runs 169 pages, which includes copious chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and an extremely thorough index. It obviously is not intended to give a complete account of Dylan’s life and works but rather focus primarily on his output during the 1960s. Interestingly, it begins with an original poem (song lyrics?) by the author: “Songs for Passersby,” which is an homage to Dylan spun from biographical strands used by the author to support his claims. This is then followed in the customary way by a preface and introduction.

The body of the text contains eight chapters divided into two sections and a conclusion.  Section I, “Theories and Practices” contains three chapters offering: a biography, an account of Dylan’s early years in New York, and Dylan’s affinities with Franz Kafka, T. S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso. Section II, “Songs and Songwriting” contains fives chapters which: detail what Curtis calls “Songs of Transcendence” from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, “Songs of Assimilation” from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, tables of rhyme forms from Dylan’s songs of the 1960s as well as those of some Tin Pan Alley and other American Songs, a comparison of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and a chronological comparison of the early successes of Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen. Curtis concludes his account with a discussion of the paradoxes of Dylan.

The very first sentence of the introduction tells us that his purpose in writing the book “is to help the reader understand the often puzzling, confusing songs that Bob Dylan wrote during the 1960s” (p. 4). Hence, the need to decode Dylan. There are three things to unpack here: there is a message in these songs, the messages are hidden, and that a key exists to unlock the messages. But in some sense the key itself is hidden, or, at the very least, it is not as straightforward as a cryptogram where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters in the message and letters in the key. The message connects to what Curtis calls the “markers of creativity.” In particular, the four major markers of: cultural marginality, ethnicity, relationship to father, and birth order (10). If one can understand these markers with respect to Dylan, then one can then decipher the messages of his songs. Given the space constraints on this review, I will focus on just two of the four markers — ethnicity and birth order.

The author attempts to account for these markers in Dylan by looking at “other major figures in cultural history” (10). I will focus on just one of those figures — Pablo Picasso. Curtis goes to great lengths to establish that Dylan had read or had an opportunity to read Picasso’s Picassos, Picasso: An American Tribute (58) and Life with Picasso. He notes that Dylan’s own words in Chronicles acknowledge a familiarity with Picasso and the impact he had on the art world with Dylan wanting to “be like that” (57).  He goes on to claim that Dylan and Picasso “have a remarkable series of affinities” (64).  He then lists no fewer than seventeen affinities between the two men! To this reviewer there is less here than what meets the eye. It may be interesting to note these affinities, but they can’t serve as proof for any claim. One can find coincidences between any two people.

Frankly speaking, using ethnicity as one of the “markers of creativity” is fraught with difficulty. The author wants to claim that Dylan has Jewish ethnicity, and this helps explain his genius and his affinity to others who also have the same ethnicity. Therefore, for example, the author compares Dylan with Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen. Yet how does one determine ethnicity? There are no real objective markers, and assuming there are leads to stereotyping. If it is a matter of self-identifying, then how can one be sure that any two people identify as a certain ethnicity for the same reasons?  

The first-born marker, though less controversial, also has major failings. If it is intended as a psychological theory, it runs counter to the hallmark of every scientific theory — falsifiability. Curtis talks about Dylan, Streisand, and Allen as being first-born. But there is a problem: Streisand was born second. Rather than questioning the merits of the claim of the theory, the author points out that though she was born second, she was born six years after her older sibling and that fact makes her, in effect, first-born. This ad hoc revision of the criterion does not pass the smell test. In addition, this account lumps first born and only children together without any proof that the experiences of the two are sufficiently similar. I have no problems with the first-born account being a useful fiction. I do have a problem with it being used as part of a proof of someone’s creativity.

The final point that the author makes in his conclusion is worth emphasizing. It is “Dylan’s refusal to choose between high culture and popular culture that makes him a man in the middle” (148-149). The man is the middle has a foot in both worlds, sprinkling high culture references into popular culture songs. He is a participant in both without an affinity to either. This allows the author to justly claim that Dylan is paradoxical. His lyrics are strewn with paradoxes resulting from his two-culture habitation, such as “I was so much older then / I am younger than that now.”

Given some of the preceding paragraphs, you may think this reviewer would not look favorably upon the book. But the truth is, I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable read. The book is a lot like the Dylan songs of the 1960s that Curtis noted may be “puzzling and confusing,” but are nonetheless worth listening to. It may not stand up to rational scrutiny, but it is certainly a useful fiction.