Harriet Archer is a lecturer in early modern English literature at the University of St Andrews, where she teaches modules on the English Renaissance, Bob Dylan, and popular music, and is the author of Unperfect Histories: the Mirror for Magistrates, 1559-1610 (Oxford University Press, 2017).


David Bond graduated from Johnston College, the University of Redlands, in 1975, with a BA in Religion with a minor in Transpersonal Psychology. He attended Duke University Divinity School and graduated from West Virginia University with a Master of Social Work in 1979. He is a practicing psychotherapist and has been writing poetry for over forty years.


Nicholas Bornholt is a freelance writer, editor and a co-creator of He holds a BA and MRes in English from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.


Jonathan Hodgers received his PhD in music from Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches in popular music. His core areas of interest are song lyrics, the music of the 50s and 60s, audiovisual aesthetics, and music in movies. Dylan and Cinema, his forthcoming monograph for Routledge, brings together these strands by examining Bob Dylan as a filmmaker.


James O’Brien is a writer and filmmaker. He holds a PhD in editorial studies and his dissertation focuses on Bob Dylan’s unpublished writings. Oxford University Press and others have issued his writings about Dylan’s work. OUP published his annotated bibliography of works about the director John Cassavetes.


Thomas Palaima is Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics at University of Texas, Austin and a MacArthur fellow. He has written over 500 commentaries, reviews, book chapters, features, and poems on what human beings do with their lives. These have appeared in the Times Higher Education, Michigan War Studies Review, Arion, Athenaeum Review, The Texas Observer, the Los Angeles Times, and

Scott F. Parker is author of Being on the Oregon Coast: An Essay on Nature, Solitude, the Creation of Value, and the Art of Human Flourishing and A Way Home: Oregon Essays as well as editor of Conversations with Joan Didion and Conversations with Ken Kesey, both published by University Press of Mississippi. He teaches writing at Montana State University.


Robert Reginio teaches modern literature in the Division of English at Alfred University. He currently serves as the Hagar Professor of the Humanities at the University. This spring he will be working in the Bob Dylan Archive researching the composition of the songs that would make their way onto the album John Wesley Harding.


Christopher Rollason is author of numerous articles and papers on Bob Dylan, and of the book Read Books, Repeat Quotations: the Literary Bob Dylan (2021). He has presented papers at major Dylan conferences, including Caen, France (2005) and Tulsa (2019). Recently, he was plenary speaker at a conference on Dylan and popular culture, University of Jaén, Spain.


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 literature, intertextuality, and the works of Bob Dylan. Books include Virgil and the Augustan Reception (Cambridge 2001), Bob Dylan’s Performance Artistry (Oral Tradition 22.1 (2007)), and Why Bob Dylan Matters (2017).

Raphael Falco. No One to Meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2022. xii + 260 pp.1

REVIEW BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University


A generation after the sack of Rome in August 410 CE, a Roman by the name of Macrobius, probably a Christian though his writings show no sign of that, wrote a dialogue set a generation before the sack. Entitled Saturnalia after the three-day pagan festival that opened on December 17, 382 or 383 CE – eventually morphing into Christmas – it is ostensibly a manual of sorts for the writer’s son, gathering writings from pagan literature that had formed the author’s education. For Macrobius that manual included first and foremost Virgil’s four-centuries-old Aeneid, a “sacred poem” for Christian writers though its author was a pagan.


In the fifth book of his dialogue Macrobius collects and juxtaposes what we would now call the Greek, mostly Homeric, intertexts of Virgil’s poem, the lines that critics had accused him of plagiarizing even in the poet’s lifetime – evoking the now well-known response from Virgil: “Why don’t my critics try the same thefts? They will soon realize it’s easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than steal a line from Homer.” In his preface Macrobius, without naming either of his sources, borrows from Seneca, who had quoted Virgil in saying “we ought to imitate the bees, who wander about and pluck from flowers then arrange what they have gathered and distribute it in the cells of the honeycomb and transform into a single taste the different types of nectar, through mixing in the individual quality of their own spirit.”


Virgil’s friend Horace, Rome’s greatest lyric poet, who himself draws from the Greek lyric poet Pindar, had compared himself in Odes 4.2 to the tiny bee who roves about the woods and riverbanks of Tivoli, fashioning his elaborate song. Nothing new under the sun – Ovid said that. Having in Why Bob Dylan Matters addressed the issue of Dylan’s borrowings or thefts from classical Greek and Roman poets, I was of course struck by Raphael Falco’s title, No One to Meet, and particularly the subtitle, Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan. So when a co-editor of the Dylan Review asked me to review the book I gladly accepted. Although I am on the Editorial Board, I have not met Professor Falco, who rightly recused himself from the process that now culminates in this review.


It is not easy for academics to write successfully on Dylan, many of whose fans and followers – not without reason when it comes to much academic writing in the humanities – would side with David Crosby’s take on Dylan’s fellow honorees on that Princeton stage during the locust infestation of 1970: “dickheads on autostroke.” I got my share of such sentiment from The Times on November 18, 2017 (“Is Bob Dylan inspired by classical poets? James Marriott yawns at nerdy analysis”) and the next day when The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan wrote under the headline “An academic’s attempt to shoehorn Dylan into the pantheon of literary greats misunderstands the singer’s appeal.” Dylan of course quotes Crosby in Chronicles, Volume One, and himself sang “The world of research has gone berserk / Too much paperwork” – and that was before the cascade of post-Nobel publications, podcasts and blog posts. And yet, he also gave a vivid and informative defense of precisely this intertextual aspect of his art in Rolling Stone, just two weeks after the release of Tempest in 2012, the album on which through the songs’ Homeric intertextuality he effectively “became Odysseus.” Interviewer Mikal Gilmore had left the trickiest question till the end: “I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers.” Among the colorful responses that diverted readers – “wussies and pussies complain about that stuff … all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell” – Dylan also gave us a glimpse of his understanding of his place in a long tradition:

It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back … I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritative figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can.


Falco, professor of Renaissance English literature, is one such figure. He announces the book’s purpose on page 25: “I analyze the growth and development of Dylan’s unparalleled lyrical authority through his practice of imitation, appropriation, and self-imitation.” Among the many things reborn in the Renaissance’s discovery and recreation of classical antiquity were theories of intertextuality: “mimesis,” to use the Greek term; for the Romans, “imitation” and its more competitive cousin “emulation.” It is notable that “influence,” though from a Latin word, did not exist in antiquity. No Greek or Roman would have been able to think or say “Homer influenced Virgil,” “Virgil influenced Dante,” “the Odyssey influenced Dylan.” Cicero used the verb in Laws 2.38, agreeing with Plato that “nothing so influences[2] impressionable young minds as the varied sounds of song, whose power for good and evil can scarcely be put into words.” Nothing new again – think of parental views of Elvis for the evil bit. The noun is from a neo-Latin coinage, mostly early-modern and astrological in essence, the “flowing in” of an element from certain alignments or positions of the stars, such as the supposed cause of ‘flu (or influenza).


What Virgil, Dante, and Dylan do with their respective traditions is a complete inversion of “influence,” and Falco begins his first chapter with Swedish Academy Professor Horace Engdahl’s words in his presentation speech of 2016: “all creativity begins in imitation.” In other words there is – more or less until the Romantics – no notion of “originality” in the sense critics of Dylan’s intertextual or transfigurative method of composing have in mind. “Originality” with the meaning “independent of and different from anything that has gone before” (OED 3a) is like “influence,” a late-comer to the English language. In college I knew an aspiring poet who refused to read other poets for fear of maiming his “originality.” I wonder what he is doing now – not writing poetry I would guess. Falco, whose mission is in part to introduce Renaissance theories and practice of imitatio to a broader audience, puts it this way in his introduction:

Imitatio is the means by which poets like Dylan manifest originality in the word’s literal sense, deriving from a source, or origo. But imitatio also allows poets to express originality – in the modern sense of creativity – through new combinations and revisions of past works. The poetic practice of imitation, which extends to the other arts, predates the Romantic perspective on originality and creative imagination.

In other words originality is not that in which the origin lies, but rather that which has an origin. This might feel like a semantic sleight of hand, but it is surely borne out by pre-Romantic realities, in antiquity and the Renaissance.


This approach allows Falco to demonstrate that originality lies in the transformation of the origins into a new creation. On page 6 he looks at the way Dylan, from early on, “recasts forms that are already familiar” – “Masters of War” out of “Nottamun Town,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Come” out of “Lord Randall,” and later “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” – melody, meter and all unmistakably coming out of “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night.” We hear the shared four first words, which announce the origin, and we hear the last four syllables of each, metrically and prosodically identical but semantically different in fundamental ways. That sets up a narrative that replaces the workingman’s anthem, whose vision and message urge us to go “on to organize,” with pure art and genius, particularly in the stunning final verse, where the singer played a central role in the death of the Christian martyr: “And I dreamed I was among the ones that put him out to death.”


Lest things seem to be getting too textual, it should be said that Falco, like many of us whose fields are rooted in writing and textuality but who follow the art of Bob Dylan, is fully aware that writing is only the beginning of Dylan’s art, and that its essence exists ultimately in the performance, the particular inflexions and meanings coming across only in each version. That is why in the concerts of recent years he can sing the same songs every night; they are not the same songs. Dylan himself warned on that score and directly corrected the Nobel Committee’s defensive claim that Dylan’s words could be read on the page: “They’re meant to be sung, not read.” Falco “would have liked to insert links to Dylan’s ‘delivery’ at every quotation” (p. 4) but is constrained by technological and legal realities. Yet his book is constantly aware that its subject is a performative artist, though one who does not exist without his words and his voice in song. On page 32 Falco aptly quotes Betsy Bowden’s assessment, as true to reality now as it was back when she offered it in 1982, “It was his voice that spoke so directly to and for each individual listener: Dylan’s whining, grating, snarling voice that could drip scorn or comfort, could stretch or snap off words to disregard their literal meaning or to fulfill it.”


At the end of the introduction, Falco sets out the themes of the four chapters. One of the strengths of the book is in the practical criticism, imbued with a deep knowledge of Dylan’s oeuvre that is, for the most part, integrated into his theoretical system, its presence lightly felt. We never lose sight of the fact that this is a book about the art of Bob Dylan. Space does not allow me to go into all of his observations and arguments, which tend not to be linear, but rather flit from topic to topic in an engaging way, and not unlike Horace’s bee.


Chapter 1, “Past the Vernacular,” demonstrates how Dylan’s imitation draws from his vast mnemonic capacity and creative genius to produce new art whose components are visible but unobtrusive. That is the sense in which the Renaissance understood imitatio – as did the ancient Greeks and Romans who created the foundation for those Renaissance theories one and two millennia earlier, long before the First Crusade.


Falco distinguishes Dylan’s imitation from the slavish type that comes across as having been copied, not from the artist’s having acquired the vernacular and then going past that vernacular. Here it might be useful to think of Eliot’s much-quoted “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Falco quotes Dylan speaking to Jonathan Cott in 1978: “I don’t try to imitate Rimbaud in my work. I’m not interested in imitation.” Here Dylan may merely mean, “I’ve lost interest in Rimbaud.” And keep in mind that in the 1974 song it was his “relationships” not his songs that had been “like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.” “Mr. Tambourine Man” certainly imitated an English translation of the French Symbolist’s “Le Bateau Ivre,” (perhaps Norman Cameron’s version) and I argued in 2017 that “Chimes of Freedom” likewise imitates Rimbaud’s “Poor People in Church.” But that imitation, as I argued, involved barely any use of actual words, and yet “Chimes of Freedom,” the work of an already mature poet, stole from the French poet. Dylan made it his own and in the process replaced the contempt of Rimbaud towards the “timid ones … the epileptic ones … the blind ones” with the empathy that is central to “Chimes” for “the searching ones … the aching ones … the countless confused, accused, misused ones.” That is how imitation worked in classical antiquity – and all the way through the Renaissance until the Romantics changed our way of thinking. Rimbaud had helped give us “Chimes of Freedom,” and Dylan soon moved on, saying within a couple of years, “I can’t read him now.” But Rimbaud’s specific poems remain visible, and important even if Dylan had moved on.


Here Falco might have given his readers some of the famous letter from Petrarch to Boccaccio, quoted by Kinney in his fundamental Continental Humanist Poetics, from which Falco rightly draws throughout. The letter was dated October 28, 1366:

A proper imitator should take care that what he writes resembles the original without reproducing it. The resemblance should not be that of a portrait to the sitter[3]– in that case the closer the likeness is the better – but it should be the resemblance of a son to his father … As soon as we see the son, he recalls the father to us, although if we should measure every feature, we should find them all different. But there is between them a certain shared element that indicates one is the impression of the other.[4]

The patrilineal metaphor may not please all, and it doesn’t quite fit the fact that the son in Petrarch’s letter plays no role in creating the imitation, but looking at it from the end result (the appearance of the son), it works well enough. We see Guthrie in the lyrics, melody, performance, and appearance of Dylan in 1962 and 1963, but the features are changed. We see Rimbaud in Dylan’s mid-60s song, but the features are changed. They are new creations.


Chapter 2 (“Savage Innocence: Dylan’s Art of Appropriation”) begins: “In the film The Savage Innocents, Anthony Quinn plays Inuk, an Eskimo hunter … Although no one seems to have cited this film as the source of the song, I have not seen an explanation anywhere as to why the ‘mighty’ Quinn should be an Eskimo.” In fact Oliver Trager on page 505 of Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia – a somewhat hubristic subtitle given the subject – includes a still from the movie, noting that “some Dylan scholars,” left unnamed, cite the film as a source for the song. I mention this not for any “gotcha” purpose, but first of all because it points to a central problem in Dylanology, something of a Wild West in which it is not always easy to find the origins of ideas, and in which many of us have found our own ideas reappearing without acknowledgement. This is in the nature of the field, and it is to be expected that as Dylan continues to be the subject of academic study, things might change. Although it is also the case in the academic world that bibliographic scruples are on the wane.


Falco is a model of how the scholarly face of Dylanology might look. He is scrupulous with his scholarship, with 204 items in his bibliography all to be found in text and notes, fully acknowledging those to whom he is indebted, myself included on the classical material; Andrew Muir on Shakespeare; Scobie, Ricks, Hampton on their particular subjects. And he is balanced and generous in his treatment of others, a welcome feature compared to some writers who seem to feel an exclusive ownership of the art and especially the life of Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin, to return to The Savage Innocents, makes no mention of the film in Revolution in the Air, nor does Michael Gray’s Dylan encyclopedia, so Falco’s oversight is natural. Be that as it may, Falco’s argument for the connection is generally convincing, and a good path into the chapter’s continuing exploration of what he means by “originality,” which also involves the degree to which the source is easily recognized or known. When Dylan sang the opening words of “Hard Rain,” many or all in the coffee house folk communities would have immediately heard the opening, “O where have you been, Lord Randall, my son.” They would have recognized the father even as they were thunderstruck by the blue-eyed son who was about to open a universe the father had never contemplated. Hearing the old song in the words and melody of the new song is a vital part of the experience, as Petrarch wrote. Likewise, though now coming back to Earth, my appreciation of “Quinn the Eskimo” is increased by the thought that “It ain’t my cup of meat” could find its origin in the bowl of maggot-infested meat that figures in the film.


But Falco’s reading of the song also got me thinking about the double title, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” in the lyrics book and on Inuk is mighty enough, but what if Dylan had more than one Anthony Quinn in mind? In the magnificent second chapter of Chronicles, “The Lost Land,” Dylan writes of going to “an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street … I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there – one called La Strada, which means ‘The Street.’” It is hard to imagine Dylan not being absorbed by the figure of Zampanò, the itinerant character played by Quinn for whom Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, as the waif Gelsomina, collects offerings as he breaks a chain with only the strength of his chest expansion! Though not so mighty in reality, he certainly comes across as the mighty Quinn to the simple Italians who pay good money to see the act. A bit like the carnival figure Dylan recalls seeing when the circus is in town at Hibbing’s National Guard Armory, as Dylan himself put it: “Gorgeous George. A mighty spirit” (Chronicles, Volume 1, p. 44). He returns to the theme on page 187, now in New Orleans, at the end of the 1980s, when he tells of going to see “The Mighty Quinn,” “a mystery, suspense, Jamaican thriller with Denzel Washington as the mighty Xavier Quinn, a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that’s just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song ‘The Mighty Quinn.’ Denzel Washington.” Sure, Bob, whatever you say, but Zampanò as the Mighty Quinn has my vote.


In a learned section (“Meet Me in the Margin”), Falco goes on to explore the presence of appropriation and how, or whether, it affects our hearing of the song. The answer depends in part on the level of erudition of both Dylan and the listener. Falco is right to distinguish Dylan’s complexity of intertextuality from the polysemous layering of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Dante’s Inferno, works that come late in their respective traditions. And yet, Dylan’s mnemonic range equals these two when it comes to his absorbing folk and other traditions that have unfairly been considered of a lower register, but which would have been heard by the Gaslight Cafe audiences. He picks up the more recent examples of Dylan’s imitatio of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. With apologies for immodesty I bring up his treatment of my listening in this context:

It would be misleading to say that Richard Thomas, a classical scholar, hears Virgil where we hear Dylan (as at least one reviewer observed). Not only does this do Thomas a disservice, but, more significantly, such statements do a disservice to all forms of erudition. Thomas hears Dylan and hears Virgil in Dylan: he chooses to write about Virgil or Ovid because he has expertise in this while most of the rest of us don’t. His writing about Virgil does not obfuscate what the rest of us hear when we listen to Dylan. The function of erudition is not to suppress the text or supplant it but to enhance and augment it.

This is a point worth stressing. I first heard Virgil in Dylan in the second-to-last verse of “Lonesome Day Blues” in mid-September 2001, a few days after 9/11. I bought the album in Tower Records in Cambridge, MA, an hour after the second tower was hit, the irony occurring to me as I did so. I had been listening to Dylan for over thirty years, studying and teaching Virgil for a little less. Hearing Virgil in Dylan was an indescribable feeling, not equaled in its immediacy by hearing Ovid in the songs on Modern Times.[5] A close runner-up was hearing Odysseus taunting the Cyclops in the penultimate verse of “Early Roman Kings.”


And so it continues. When I heard “stand over there by the cypress tree, where the Trojan women and children are being sold into slavery,” I knew the words from “My Own Version of You” could only come some 1,100 years before the First Crusade, from 19 BCE and the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Others soon decided they had heard the same. Some no doubt went and read the great poem that gives us the gripping narrative of the fall of Troy, Trojan Aeneas’ survivor song, sung in the court of Dido, Queen of Carthage. You don’t need to hear these instances of imitatio precisely along the lines that Falco sets out. You don’t need to hear Homer as you read Virgil, but if you try sometime you just might find you get something out of it all. And if it disrupts your firmly established view of what matters to Dylan, and therefore reject the possibility as academic humbug, that’s your problem. And this happens in performance. I was in Austin on March 16, 2022, the week Dylan started singing the new sixth verse of “Crossing the Rubicon” to which Bob Britt’s guitar flurries draw particular attention, like the Sanctus bells in the Catholic church alerting those in attendance to what comes next:

Right or wrong what can I say? What really needs to be said?
I’ll spill your brains out on the ground. You’ll be better off over there with the dead
Seems like 10 maybe 20 years I’ve been gone
I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.


Line 1 is the voice of Helen, in Book 4 of the Odyssey, line 2 that of the Cyclops imagining what he will do to Odysseus (“I’d smash him against the ground, I’d spill his brains”) and line 3 that of Odysseus, wandering for all those years. Dylan apparently wanted his familiar Homeric hero to come back into play. You can decide you don’t want to hear Homer, though why you would want not to I wouldn’t know. But you can’t say only I am hearing these specific translations of Fagles’ Odyssey when it is quite clear what Dylan – for whatever reason, a different question – is doing, namely inserting the Homeric lines into a transformed version of “Crossing the Rubicon.”


The third chapter (“Self-Portrait in a Broken Glass: Dylan Imitates Dylan”) turns to what some of us call intratextuality, the ways in which the artist’s own earlier work becomes part of the word hoard, a process whereby the artist “has mined his or her own body of work for as much material to reintroduce, adapt, and weave into songs” (p. 25). I suggested (Thomas 2017:180–187) that the Boston restaurant scene in “Highlands” was such an instance, alluding back to that momentous occasion in the topless place or one of its variants in “Tangled Up in Blue” and updating via the reality of the second-wave feminist waitress whom the singer, wishing someone would come and “push back the clock for him,” now fails to pick up. Skeptics will find unimportant the fact that in his first two performances of “Highlands” he sang it right after the 1975 classic. But if you allow yourself to hear the intratext – and now that I have mentioned it, you will not fail to make the connection – the performative pairing has a transcendent effect.


Falco rightly claims that no major artist in the twentieth century is as self-referential as Dylan. But if you go back, by way of Shakespeare, again to before the First Crusade, you will find a model for this in Virgil. In the Golden Age to which the fourth Messianic eclogue (c. 39 BCE) finds an escape, inside the gates of Eden, “every land will produce everything” (omnis feret omnia tellus). In Virgil’s great next poem, Georgics (29 BCE), which confronts the hard reality in the world of the Iron Age, that earlier Utopian fiction is exploded: “in truth all lands cannot produce everything” (nec vero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt). In these two examples Dylan and Virgil are doing pretty much the same thing, allowing an earlier song or poem to come into play through intratextuality, if only we have ears to hear.


In reality, much of this third chapter is more focused on the relationship between textual and pictorial, between lyrics and drawing, painting and photography. Falco offers a wide-ranging exploration of the relationship between the two in Writings and Drawings and the ways the images relate to the facing lyrics. He connects these to the worlds of Mondo Scripto, and provides an interesting discussion of the multiple images of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – graphic translations of self-imitation. He briefly treats five of the sixteen images that illuminate the song in the catalog with different implements (garden rake, baseball bat, iron bar, jackhammer, large crucifix), all being used in fruitless knockings on three different types of doors.


He might also have noted that page 317 in the Mondo Scripto catalog has sixteen images, arranged four per line, thus producing a perfectly iconic image of the song’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. There are ten images of a man knocking on a variety of doors, eight of them taking up the second and fourth lines (choruses), the other two at the end of the first and second verses. The entirety of the song’s lyrics, in case we don’t know them, are written across the sixteen images, allowing simultaneous viewing, reading, and singing of the song. Just when you thought there was nothing much to say about that old favorite, Dylan shows you a new way in. And as Horace said, ut pictura poesis, “poetry is like painting.”


Returning to this page of Mondo Scripto got me thinking about the other six lines of the song, especially the first two: “Mama, take this badge off of me” and “I can’t use it anymore.” We see the same badge in each image, first upright with nothing else in the frame, then lying abandoned on a city street, with only our imagination about how it got there. You don’t have to look too closely to see the words “Maricopa County, Ariz.” You might then be entitled to think of that county’s sheriff, Joe Arpaio, criticized by Amnesty International and the Anti-Defamation League, sued by the ACLU for racial profiling, convicted of criminal contempt of court in July 2017, and pardoned by Donald Trump the next month while Dylan was producing Mondo Scripto. By then Arpaio couldn’t use the badge anymore, having been defeated by Democrat Paul Penzone in the same general election that brought Trump in. To all of this Dylan might reply, “Look again, that’s a Deputy Sheriff badge. Arpaio was Sheriff; he’s not there.”


In the section “Stuck Inside a Painting,” Falco gets to song intratextuality, starting out with Stephen Scobie’s brilliant treatment of the way “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” from 1983 (“But it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting / That’s hanging in the Louvre”) involves itself in the great “Visions of Johanna” with the Louvre’s most famous piece of art (“Inside the museums … Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues”). Falco then connects the “jelly-faced women” who all sneeze in the same verse of “Visions” – a crucial question: are they old, or just obese (“can’t find my knees”)? – to Dylan’s drunken put down of his elderly audience at the infamous Tom Paine Awards: “old people when their hair grows out, they should go out.” That then leads Falco to “My Back Pages,” not only its chorus (“I was so much older then”), but to the opening two lines: “Crimson flames tied through my ears / Rollin’ high and mighty traps”, and the comment that “The ‘crimson flames’ presumably represent the fiery left-wing rhetoric that engulfed Dylan in his ‘finger-pointing’ period.” The strategic adverb [my italics] contains multitudes. It is dangerous to presume too much about the surreal imagery of a song like “My Back Pages” even if we might all agree and hold as a presumption that one of its meanings has to do with the singer no longer relying on the old songwriting that appealed to the older folk aficionados of his first two Newport appearances.


This leads to a central aspect of criticism that involves itself in intertextual or intratextual claims and arguments. I have always thought having a bare majority of readers – though ideally three quarters – consent to your observations and arguments was a prerequisite to successful criticism, not that you can ever know. Falco always has interesting things to say, but in these pages I found myself reluctant to go along, starting with my failure to accept his assertion that “jelly-faced women” meant “old women,” a necessary link in his Tom Paine chain. On page 126 he observes “in terms of self-reference, being ‘stuck inside a painting’ and being ‘stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues’ are comparable.” That seems plausible. Whether that leads to the conclusion that “both songs indict art – painting and the blues – as the agents of physical limitations,” or that with the title “Stuck Inside of Mobile” there is an “ironic pun in that it refers to someone immobilized,” is another matter. The same may be said of a somewhat tendentious next step on page 128. The necessary body parts are telegraphed at the start of the section: “Dylan’s speaker in ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight’ is in effect ‘calling out that he’s been framed.’” He’s doing no such thing, but this allows Falco to bring in the line from “I Shall Be Released” and close the circle. “That he’s been framed” allows a connection that will again fall far short, I suspect, of that 50 percent threshold.


It continues. The last verse of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” proposes to the woman “getting beneath the surface waste.” “No more booby traps and bombs / No more decadence and charm / No more affection that’s misplaced, girl.” So far so good. But then, “No more mudcake creatures lying in your arms.” My reaction at this point would be “I don’t know what it means, either, but it sounds good,” as Dylan said of that couplet of John Donne in the Nobel Lecture (though I do know what that one means). But Falco is all in: the image “mudcake creatures” “refers to Genesis 2:5-7, where God forms man from the dust of the ground” (King James and New Revised Standard). If you wonder how that works, on the next page we have the answer, that the speaker “renounces mudcake formation and affirms his vow to lie in the girl’s arms, not any more as a mere creature of the clay but as a man newly connected (or converted) to the deity.” Falco is enjoying himself, and there is nothing wrong with that, particularly if that is really what the lines mean to him. But wouldn’t Dylan have written “no more mudcake creature” at the very least if he meant his own transformation exclusively? And for me there is no Genesis imitatio at work here. I’m just not on board. Terry Gans seems the wiser (Surviving in a Ruthless World 72, n. 95): “One of the seemingly inexplicable phrases is ‘mudcake creatures.’ It could refer to a driller, a baker or a sexual practice. Or it could just be three words put together. Your guess is as good as any.” But if you take on such a line, you have to persuade readers that your guess is better than any.


The problem with asserting a single, strong meaning in an argument with many links in the chain is that it then has to fit into the song’s, or at least the verse’s, larger meaning; and the very next line should advise caution: “What about that millionaire with the drumsticks in his pants?” For Falco this too has to be made to fit into a biblical reading of a song that to many seems at home with the unbelieving title of the album (Infidels): “Maybe the millionaire’s bewilderment is brought on by the rejection of his earthy rhythm once the mudcake creatures are no more – once they are saved as Christ’s successors with the promise of spiritual generation.” If the reader has not bought into the born-again reading of the mudcake creatures, the entirety of the chapter’s last seven pages of analysis of a song Dylan never performed will be in vain. I hasten to add that while not going along with the interpretive aspects, I enjoyed these pages, and particularly enjoyed Falco the Renaissance man displaying his scholarly expertise and familiarity with the biblical material as literature – a familiarity lacking in more recent students of literature. In that connection one of the profound aspects of Dylan’s lyrical genius across the decades is his literary engagement with the Bible, quite apart from his own faith practice of any decade.


Chapter 4 (“The Wizard’s Curse: The American Singer as Vates”) promises to be “both a culmination and an expansion, closing the circle on my argument that Dylan’s status as a vatic poet is unique in contemporary culture.” This chapter will be the most demanding for many readers, but it is also in many ways the most successful in its dazzling and generally persuasive connections across the years. Vates, as Falco explains, is Latin for “bard” and “prophet” – a word that suggested old-fashioned poets to the young, avant-garde Virgil and Horace, but which became rehabilitated as they used it of themselves in their higher-register moments when asserting their own status as voice of their generation, in the tumultuous world in which they lived. That is, as they were assuming the classical status they would come to hold – as Dylan has been doing in recent years.


The word vates is probably a loan word, passing into Latin from the Celtic Gaulish, and as such was cognate with Old Norse Ōdin, Old English Wōdan, Old High German Wuotan, the Irish and Welsh terms for “bard” and other terms meaning “leader of the possessed,” “king of frenzy” – none of them false prophets. Falco brilliantly connects such figures to Dylan’s voice in the opening of “False Prophet”: “another ship going out,” going back almost 60 years to the song Dylan sang at the March on Washington, “the hour that the ship comes in.” And he connects the theme to much else, not least the Book of Daniel and the biblical prophets, as he ranges across Dylan’s oeuvre pursuing this topic.


Among the most impressive sections of this chapter is “Visionary Technology,” the treatment of Dylan’s “aesthetic technology,” a “literary phenomenon born of imitation.” Falco develops Timothy Hampton’s work on Dylan’s use of Rimbaud as he returns to later manifestations of that topic, including the Rimbaud collage in the famous “Series of Dreams” video. Though recently remastered and stripped of its highly intertextual images, this video once included a “flash of the famous Rimbaud portrait, whose edges suddenly melt and reform” – a corroboration of Dylan’s disavowal of the French poet’s importance in the years following his patent interest. We don’t know who made that video, whose opening frames have Horace’s line from his closing ode, non omnis moriar, “not all of me will die.” I like to think Dylan somehow found the great Roman poet’s prediction that his poetry would outlast the pyramids. But perhaps, as Milton put it, I fondly dream, and it was just some Classics nerd production assistant.


Falco goes on to open up the whole catalog of Dylan’s songbook as he offers a collective vision of songs that might have seemed unconnected without his persuasive writing:

While “Hard Rain” demonstrates an extraordinary command of vatic expression very early on, Dylan’s later songs from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Dirge” to “I and I” to “Mississippi,” “High Water,” “Not Dark Yet,” and “Highlands” exhibit an ongoing and profound commitment to that same mode of writing and performance. Even the knotty, cryptic, accusing verses of such experimental standards as “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” while eschewing the anthemic voice of the pabulum years, resonate with visionary challenges.

Even the cover of “Arthur McBride,” “Percy’s Song,” and especially “Abandoned Love” come into focus for him. Νο one who has heard Dylan’s Bitter End version of “Abandoned Love” will soon forget that delivery, particularly the final verse with St. John the Evangelist making an appearance, which Falco connects back to the prophetic voices of “Hard Rain,” “Gates of Eden,” “Percy’s Song,” among many others. And it may be useful to think about “Abandoned Love” in terms of those other prophetic songs, particularly on that night, when the singer sends out for St. John. But things get a little out of hand: “About ‘to make a change,’ he calls for Saint John the Evangelist, author of Revelation, apparently for a viaticum” [the final Eucharist administered to a dying person]. Falco would not be the first person to mix up John the Evangelist or Apostle, “the one whom Jesus loved,” with the Revelator of the same common name. Apart from this, it is hard not to hear the delighted laughter of the Bitter End crowd when Dylan got to the end of the verse. It may be time to make a change, but how serious at that point? “But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange.”


Although there is much insight in this final 55-page chapter, as a whole it meanders a little, losing sight of Renaissance “imitatio as originality” that is Falco’s overall theme and the heart of the book. Moreover, it could have profited from some editorial tightening. The word “vatic,” unfamiliar to many but well explained by Falco, occurs 135 times in the chapter, eleven times on page 182: vatic authority (thrice), vatic voice (thrice), vatic imagery, technique, gifts, innovations, song. The very word becomes a distraction. It is unfortunate that this stylistic excess will keep some readers from staying engaged.


More engaging are four pages on “Blind Willie McTell,” wherein Falco examines an important observation by David Yaffe (2011) about this song’s place in what Yaffe calls Dylan’s lifelong “reckoning with [B]lackness.” Yaffe wrote “‘nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,’ [Dylan] sang, but nobody sang about not being able to sing those blues like Dylan, which in turn made for compelling blues in its own way.” Falco’s particular expansion of this comes through his own expertise in the area of Renaissance literature. Here as elsewhere, he brings in Arthur Kinney’s valuable introductory chapter to his 1989 book Continental Humanist Poetics, which points to the need for “the audience [to] see the residual traces of the original, which has been the initial impulse or model.” Yaffe and Falco together provide an important way into thinking – by way of the images and sounds of “Blind Willie McTell” – about how Dylan comes to terms with the white appropriation of Black blues traditions. They reveal the daring of the song’s project, but also reveal just how successful this particular transfiguration was. Of the many greatest hits that Dylan left off albums, none is a greater song than this. Perhaps Dylan was as yet uncertain how its purpose in connection to this larger social and cultural question might be received.


Next comes a ten-page section (“You Need the Blood on Your Door”) that picks up on the reference to the mezuzah in the opening line of “Blind Willie McTell”: “Seen the arrow on the doorpost.” Falco develops the notion that the symbol of the arrow, suggesting a “sense of hope, of liberation from slavery, of a future guaranteed by covenant,” puts Moses and the prophetic or vatic Mosaic in play, connecting the Egyptian enslavement of the Jews and that of Black people in the American South for whom Moses became so central in word, song, and soul. Here Falco focuses on the gospel period of 1979–80, ranging impressively through the songs and the often lengthy homiletic preambles to which Dylan treated his audiences across those remarkable months. By now we have become accustomed to Falco’s voice: “Yet Dylan never abandons the Mosaic voice as a viable vatic alternative.” Putting these verbal ticks aside, readers will find Falco impressive in recovering from the voices of those who were in attendance, and especially from the evidence now available on Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 1979-1981, just how dynamic these performances were. Drawing from Gayle Wald’s warning that “approaches that focus on the written text overlook the performativity of gospel,” he well notes that release of the performances is a “reminder of how daring Dylan can be in refiguring lyrical and musical forms in performance as well as on the page. His sense of transformative imitation buoys the performances on the live album. We can hear a deep investment of heart in his voice, an earnestness unleavened by Dylan’s usual sense of amusement – except for “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” perhaps.”


One might note though that the song-changing aposiopesis at the end of the last verse of that song “Saw him disappear by a tree near the lake …” leaves you to supply the final item which takes you back from Old MacDonald’s farm animals – (bear), cow, bull, pig, sheep – to Eden and the “fruit of that forbidden tree” – not so funny after all.


In usefully pondering the imponderable questions of where and how Dylan absorbed the New Testament images and resonances, and particularly how much might have come from Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-selling born-again manifesto The Late Great Planet Earth, Falco on page 177 prints an image from the Tulsa Archive. Figure 7 is said to be from “Notes, writings, and unfinished lyrics from Shot of Love, c 1981.” As Falco writes, “[Dylan] even prepared an alphabetical concordance of New Testament verses corresponding to an idiosyncratic list of virtues, vices, emotions, and character traits.” One might question the archival dating for such a crib sheet, for which 1981 seems a little late. And yet by then such a list may show not so much conscientiousness about “doing his Christian Bible school homework” – which primarily took place in early 1979 – as constituting a concordance of themes and corresponding New Testament passages for use in his songwriting.


More than 20 of the crib sheet’s 100 references come from that too complex Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and they constitute rules for Christians to live by, with some hard items. The biographers will be interested that Matthew 15.4 (Jesus quoting the Ten Commandments “God said ‘Honor your father and your mother’”) appears twice, under “Honor of Parents” and “Mother,” but not under “Father” for which there is no entry. And as for “Adultery” there is some understandable cherry-picking: Matthew 5.28 (along with 27 and 32), which is heavy enough: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” But the sequel is not included: 29 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”


After exploring the connection of this document with the gospel period, Falco concludes this long, varied, and comprehensive chapter first with a short section on the great Time Out of Mind outtake, “Red River Shore.” Or rather, he homes in on the striking conclusion in its eighth and final verse where the singer seems to be turning again to Jesus and the proto-resurrection story of Lazarus:

Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring him on back to life.

Whether the singer wants this “guy” to bring him back into the real world from that which only existed for him and the girl from the Red River Shore, or to bring her back into the world of his present day in which she seems to be dead, is not clear. This is a subtle form of imitatio, in which the language, “heard of a guy,” and the place in time (“don’t know … if they do that kind of thing anymore”) distance themselves from any biblical textuality but in which Dylan’s “imitation, digestion, and transformative reproduction of these influences, combined with his own readings – or strong misreadings – of biblical language, provide the weave and weft of his vatic technique.” This seems to me a valuable insight, and one that could be applied to the songs, and the mode of imitatio, of Rough and Rowdy Ways whose intertextuality I have argued returns to a less specifically textual practice than the specificity of the Saga-Virgil-Timrod-Ovid-Odyssey borrowings of 2001, 2006, and 2012.


The final section of the chapter “Shipwrecks Everywhere” focuses on “Tempest,” the titular song on the 2012 album. Falco usefully gathers together the various Titanic song strands, from the Carter Family’s version from which Dylan borrows melody, the watchman and the captain – transforming all to his new purpose – to Prospero and Ariel and the Shakespearean shipwreck that never happened. Falco doubts the sincerity of Dylan’s response to Mikal Gilmore that the song is not to be taken as a judgment on modern times: “No, no, I try to stay away from all that stuff. I don’t imply any of it. I’m not interested in it. I’m just interested in showing you what happened.” Dylan in fact seems quite true to the song here. They all went down, “the good, the bad, the rich, the poor / the loveliest and the best.” And “there is no understanding / On the judgment of God’s hand.” That while drafting the song Dylan wrote “G-d,” as he does throughout the song drafts, can hardly be invoked to support the thesis that for Dylan the ship went down “as the result of a Yahwistic judgment.” I agree with Falco, and against many readers, that the song is magnificent, its melodic monotony contributing to the build-up and conveying the enormity of that day. In that respect it anticipates “Murder Most Foul,” the next epic closer. But the vatic voice seems less audible in “Tempest,” except perhaps in the nobility of the Captain, never mentioned by Falco, redeemed from the insinuation in the Carter Family version (“Cap’n Smith must have been drinking”), who in the Dylan version recalls bygone years as the water rises, reads the Book of Revelation, and fills his cup with tears.


An appendix on “Renaldo and Clara” develops Sam Shepard’s observation of the whole Rolling Thunder enterprise, including the film: “Dylan has invented himself. He’s made himself up from scratch … Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in.” The film shows Dylan in the process of creating his own self-imitation, one reason why it is still worth viewing it, difficult as that can be.


Dylanologists and hard-core fans will find fault with some details, particularly from the 1960s, where Falco is at times puzzlingly inaccurate on details that could be easily checked. On p. 22 Dylan’s famous, and revealing, words from October 31, 1964 at Philharmonic Hall in New York City (“I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading”) are said to be uttered “at Town Hall in 1962.” And on p. 125 the even more famous “Judas! moment” of May 17, 1966 was a little more than “a year away” from release of “My Back Pages” on August 8, 1964. But for most these will be minor distractions. The book ends with a twenty-page discography; it is hard to know why one would consult that rather than the outstanding Wikipedia Bob Dylan discography, which has a great deal more information. The index on the other hand is well done and intelligently compiled.


This has been a rather discursive review. The attractive discursiveness of No One to Meet is in part responsible, but so is Dylan. Falco takes the reader across the ever-changing terrain of the greatest and most prolific songwriter, in many ways the greatest artist, of our time. His theme is vast, how a great artist practices imitation, a phenomenon that is wholly positive once liberated from the prejudices of Romanticism, and understood in the terms developed from classical antiquity by the Renaissance as that form of originality that has an origin, is in a tradition. Falco’s book deserves to be read with attention and deserves to take its place among works, past and future, that put Dylan’s art in the context of the larger history of creative genius in all its ragin’ glory.


[1] Dylan Review Founding Editor, Raphael Falco, author of the book in question, recused himself from any involvement in the procuring and editing of this review. Special thanks to Shelby Nathanson for keen editorial assistance.

[2] literally “flows into” influere (my translation)

[3] Read: “photograph.”

[4] Last sentence my translation of the Italian.

[5] After Cliff Fell, then the rest of us, had heard Dylan as he was reading Peter Green’s Ovid.


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).

“And I Crossed the Rubicon”: Another Classical Dylan

ARTICLE BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University

Abstract: Continuing and updating the observations in the author’s book Why Dylan Matters (2017), this article explores Bob Dylan’s engagement with the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans in the songs of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Both in the songs which imply such engagement (“Mother of Muses,” “Crossing the Rubicon”) and elsewhere on the album, classical antiquity remains a rich resource for the intertextuality of the songwriter. The Homeric poems, and Virgil’s Aeneid, are part of the fabric on which he weaves his own epic stories, which continue the process, begun on “Love and Theft”, weaving into the album the story of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the civil wars that followed his death on the Ides of March 44 BCE.

Keywords: Aeneas; Aeneid; Appian; assassination; Augustus Caesar; Caesar, Julius; Calliope; Cavafy, Constantine; Christ, Jesus; American Civil War; Roman civil war; classical world; Crassus, Marcus Licinius; cypress tree; Dante; Dawn; Dylan, Bob; Elysian Fields; Frankenstein; heroes; Homer; Ides of March; intertextuality; invocation of Muses; Johnson, Samuel; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; Lincoln, Abraham; Latin Club, Hibbing High School; Lucan; McKinley, William; memory; Milton, John; Mnemosyne; morality; molten gold; Muses; Nobel Prize Medal; Odyssey; Ovid; Red River; Rome; Rough and Rowdy Ways; Rubicon River; Saga, Junichi; Shakespeare, William; Shelley, Mary; St. Jerome; stream of consciousness; Timrod, Henry; transfiguration; Trojan women; Troy; Virgil; Warmuth, Scott

In Why Bob Dylan Matters (Dey Street Books 2017), following up on my 2007 article “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan” (Oral Tradition 22.1), I traced the ways Dylan’s lyrics, particularly those since he engaged the epic of Virgil in “Lonesome Day Blues,” actively incorporated the works and words of ancient Greek and Roman poetry. Specifically Virgil in that particular song, the Roman poet Ovid in Modern Times (2006), and Homeric epic, where western literature all comes from, in Tempest (2012). For convenience, and to remove any doubt, I here give a more extensive table than I included in the book, just for the song “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closer of Modern Times. Ovid’s lines are alongside the lines Dylan so brilliantly worked into the song from Peter Green’s 1994 Penguin translation of Poems of Exile:

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: Every nook and cranny has its tears         

Ovid, Tristia 1.3.24: every nook and corner had its tears

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: all my loyal and my much-loved companions

Ovid, Tristia 1.3.65: loyal and much loved companions           

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: I’ll make the most of one last extra hour                          

Ovid, Tristia 1.3.68: let me make the most of one last extra hour

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned       

Ovid, Tristia 5.7.63-4: I practice / terms long abandoned

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: They will tear your mind away from contemplation

Ovid, Tristia 5.7.66: tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: They approve of me and share my code                 

Ovid, Black Sea Letters 3.2.38: who approve, and share, your code

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?

Ovid, Tristia 1.2.12: Who says I can’t get heavenly aid / when a god’s angry with me?

Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”: They will jump on your misfortune when you’re down

Ovid, Tristia 5.8.3-5: Why jump / on misfortunes that you may well suffer yourself? / I’m down

As I also hope to have shown, the engagement with Rome in particular goes back well into the twentieth century, as evidenced by the lyrics of his songs from the very beginning: “Long Ago, Far Away” (1962), “Goin’ Back to Rome” (1963), possibly “My Back Pages” (1964, in draft titled “Ancient Memories”)[1], above all “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971), and “Changing of the Guards” (1978).[2]

The current contribution is meant as an update to those two earlier studies. Dylan’s astonishing new album shows that he has stayed with some of the ancients, drawing from them and from everything else in his arsenal in new ways in the process of producing an album that will take its place among the greatest he has given us. As with the book, here I explore just one part of his art, and in no way imply that Dylan is limited or bounded by his interest in antiquity. He contains multitudes; this album contains multitudes. That includes the classical world, evident in the lyrics of some of the new songs, so it may be useful to record my thoughts here.

There is an interesting quote in the last interview he gave, in 2015 with Robert Love, editor of AARP The Magazine:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.[3]

That 2015 interview accompanied the release of the first of the five discs of American standards, the album Shadows in the Night. Dylan in the interviews can be cryptic. But he is generally careful with his words, and there is a lot of Roman history and a lot of theology on Rough and Rowdy Ways, so it is worth recalling that interview here. He has also often let out relevant oblique and cryptic information in the interviews or press conferences that immediately precede release of albums, and this has included hints about the classical tradition from which he has been drawing—especially since the Rome press conference of 2001, where he hinted at the presence of Virgil on the upcoming “Love and Theft”: “when you walk around a town like this, you know that people were here before you, and they were probably on a much higher, grander level than any of us are” (see Thomas 2017, 76).

It was therefore of no small interest to be greeted, on the morning of June 12 of 2020, just over two weeks before the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways, by the first interview in five years, with historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley had given one of these album-connected interviews, printed in Rolling Stone on May 14, 2009, a couple of weeks after the release of Together Through Life. I had been particularly interested in that interview since it included some very specific mentions of classical authors, unprompted by Brinkley, who tells how he decided “to push him on the importance of Christian Scripture in his life.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get far with that one, since Dylan skillfully shifted the topic, keeping it well away from anything personal, particularly the events of 1979:

“Well sure,” he says, “that and those other first books I read were really biblical stuff. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. Those were the books that I remembered reading and finding religion in. Later on, I started reading over and over again Plutarch and his Roman Lives. And the writers Cicero, Tacitus and Marcus Aurelius . . . I like the morality thing. People talk about it all the time. Some say you can’t legislate morality. Well, maybe not. But morality has gotten kind of a bad rap. In Roman thought, morality is broken down into basically four things. Wisdom, Justice, Moderation and Courage . . . I don’t look at morality as a religious thing.

To the disappointment of those like myself, Brinkley didn’t follow up on these pretty surprising words, or at least he didn’t do so in print, but they are in line with the aspirations he would note six years later in 2015, to teach “Roman history or theology.” And they make sense in the context of Rough and Rowdy Ways, where morality in those manifestations—wisdom, justice, moderation and courage—are on full display, along with their opposites.

At the close of the interview from June 2020, Brinkley asks, “How is your health holding up? You seem to be fit as a fiddle. How do you keep mind and body working together in unison?” Dylan’s response may seem like a cliché (how do you respond to such questions?), but it is more than that:

Oh, that’s the big question, isn’t it? How does anybody do it? Your mind and body go hand in hand. There has to be some kind of agreement. I like to think of the mind as spirit and the body as substance. How do you integrate those two things, I have no idea. I just try to go on a straight line and stay on it, stay on the level.

A few days later we would hear the penultimate verse of the brilliant “Mother of Muses” and the suggestion in that song that it is his muse who has taught him these things:

Mother of muses unleash your wrath

Things I can’t see they’re blocking my path

Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate

Put me upright, make me walk straight

Forge my identity from the inside out

You know what I’m talking about

The morality that Dylan is here talking about is something his muse taught him, what he read and listened to from his early years. Or as he put it in the Nobel Lecture, talking about his school years: “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world . . . typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by” (pp. 5–6).

The 2009 interview was part of the context in which I came to the interview of June 12, 2020, particularly having myself explored Dylan’s connections with Greece and Rome in the interim. The interview is among the most interesting that Dylan has given in advance of a new release, with broad-ranging questions on the upcoming album. My interest is in an exchange towards the end. For whatever reason Brinkley departs from the subject at hand and asks a question that, wherever it actually came from, seems to come from nowhere:

BRINKLEY: Out of all your compositions, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has grown on me over the years. What made you bring it back to the forefront of recent concerts?

DYLAN: It’s grown on me as well. I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable. That’s what the song tries to say, and you’d have to put it in that context.

As in the 2009 interview, Brinkley shows no awareness of the classical material that Dylan himself brings up here—not the only lost opportunity in the interview—and, at least in what is printed from the actual two-hour interview, winds things up with a question about a bluegrass version of “Summer Days”[4] and a final “How is your health holding up?” He might have noted the unusual language in the assertion that the song has “something to do with the classical world.” Bob Dylan brought “When I Paint My Masterpiece” back into his concert setlists on July 27, 2018. His reference to that world—“so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain”—is not accidental. The song stayed there, almost always in sixth position for every regular concert he played between that night and, as of the current moment, his last concert at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., on December 8, 2019. Brinkley missed the reference, but Dylan knew those of us interested in the classical world would find bits of it in the album that was about to appear.

As noted, the classical world, the world of ancient Greece and Rome, is not the only world that Dylan enters into in Rough and Rowdy Ways, but it is fundamental to some songs on the album, and to its structure, as I showed it was in particular to many of the songs of Modern Times and Tempest. It is my intention here to update the findings of my book and to offer some guidance to that world in the hope of contributing to an understanding of this complex masterpiece. It is not the only world comprehended by the album, but it is one—of many—that may help in getting under the skin of what Dylan has given us.


Intertextuality and Stream of Consciousness

The intertextuality that has been a hallmark of Dylan’s song composition since the 1990s continues on the new album, but things have changed. In those earlier works we encounter direct verbatim quotation of Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Virgil’s Aeneid (“Love and Theft” 2001), from Henry Timrod’s poetry or the exile poems of Ovid (various songs on Modern Times, 2006), and from Homer’s Odyssey (also on Tempest, 2012). For the songs on these albums I defined intertextuality as

the process by which poets, songwriters, composers, or artists of any genre create new meaning through the creative reuse of texts, images, or sound . . . the most powerful and evocative instances of intertextuality enrich a work precisely because, when the reader or listener notices the layered text and recognizes what the artist is reusing, that recognition activates the context of the stolen object, thereby deepening meaning in the new text.[5]

Those intertexts or references were contained on songs whose titles gave no hint of what was waiting within: “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” “Pay in Blood,” “Scarlet Town,” and the rest. In one case, “Early Roman Kings” looked from the title as if it would give us Romulus and Remus, but the Roman Kings famously turned out to be a Latino gang from 1960s New York—although the song did give us ancient Roman kings “distributing the corn,” and Odysseus’s taunting of the Cyclops he has just blinded in a verbatim quote from the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey.[6]

The new album parts company with this practice. The classical world to which Dylan referred in the Brinkley interview is there, particularly in the title of two of the songs, “Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon.” But the methodology has changed somewhat, with borrowing by direct quotation replaced by a freer and less precise borrowing. The result is a riotous mixing of genres that gives many of the songs a sense of stream of consciousness. The mind of Bob Dylan, like that of Joyce in Ulysses, flits across a variety of cultural elements, including those from the worlds of the Greeks and Romans. This incongruous mixing is something that has always been in the art of Bob Dylan, sometimes for camouflage, sometimes just for the fun and poetry of it, Mack the Finger and Louie the King, John the Baptist and the Commander in Chief, Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame. But incongruity and genre mixing seem to reach a higher pitch on Rough and Rowdy Ways, with Scarface Pacino, the Trojan Women and Julius Caesar together in a heap. “My Own Version of You” may be a special case, as we’ll see.

For whatever reason the intertextuality of the new album has avoided much in the way of direct quotation, though the Shakespeare quotes are all generally direct. Otherwise, where direct quotation is found, it seems to have to do not so much with literary traditions as with musical ones. This mode of quotation is apparent in the album’s title, a Jimmie Rodgers song, along with his photo on the CD cover; the opening words of “Key West” as borrowed from “White House Blues”; a “world so badly bent” in “Crossing the Rubicon,” shared with “Dead Presidents” by Little Walter (1964); “the wings of a snow white dove” from “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” previously sung by Robert Duvall in the 1983 movie Tender Mercies (these noted by Scott Warmuth). Even the direct quote of Roman poet Juvenal in “Black Rider” is modified slightly.

Whether Dylan finally tired of all the uninformed charges of plagiarism, I cannot say. What is true is that this more oblique process is in line with the intertextual process of poets like Milton, Blake, or Eliot, for whom poetic appropriation consists of rephrasing, rather than quotation. This is a huge topic and one I cannot pursue here, though I hope to take it up in the future. For now it stands as an assertion. Now for some song-by-song observations on the classical presences of the album.


I Contain Multitudes

In general, the opening and closing frames of the album seem to be lacking in classical references. That is particularly true of the latter, since Dylan’s cultural focus in “Murder Most Foul,” the album’s closer, is exclusively on the music from around the time of the assassination. Or the songs that someone living then, someone like Bob Dylan, might have experienced, both at the time and in the years that followed. But the first song is a slight exception. The title of course comes from Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself” 51: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)”) and Dylan quotes closely as he fleshes out the title in the penultimate refrain of the song:

I’m a man of contradictions

I’m a man of many moods

I contain multitudes

But the Homeric hero familiar from those songs of Tempest is also present in this part of the song. We don’t need to go to the CliffsNotes to know that this verse describes Odysseus, there described as “a living series of contradictions, a much more complicated character than we would expect to find in the stereotypical epic hero.” Dylan may also in the last year or two have picked up Emily Wilson’s blockbuster 2018 translation of the Odyssey with its opening invitation to the Muse, “Tell me about a complicated man.” Even before the song list came out, with “Mother of Muses” pointing back to the Nobel Lecture and beyond, the Homeric hero—the ultimate man of contradictions—was present in these lines of the opening song. The words of this first song of the album (“I’m a man of contradictions”) look most immediately to Whitman’s poem, but they also take us to Dylan’s own words in that lecture, where he adopts the identity of the Homeric hero, clearly referring to himself after he sums up the experiences of Odysseus: “In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you.” And he had already “become Odysseus” in 2012, by way of the intertextual lyrics of Tempest and in his rewriting in performance of “Workingman’s Blues #2.”[7]


False Prophet

The classical presences in “False Prophet” need to be contextualized with allusions going back to “Love and Theft”, whose “Lonesome Day Blues” gave us the quote from Virgil’s Aeneid:

I’m gonna spare the defeated—I’m gonna speak to the crowd

I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd

I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered

I’m gonna tame the proud

I have argued that these presences involved Julius Caesar, his adoptive son, Octavian—the future Augustus, first of the Roman emperors—and the Roman civil wars that brought about the transition from republic to empire:

    • “I’ll establish my rule through civil war” (“Bye and Bye”)

    • “I’m here to create the new imperial empire” (“Honest with Me”)

    • “I’ll avenge my father’s death then I’ll step back” (“Ain’t Talkin’”)

    • “Brother rose up against brother / In every circumstance / They fought and slaughtered each other / In a deadly dance” (“Tempest”)

    • “In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes / Up on a hill a chilly wind blows” (“Scarlet Town”)

The tone also looks to the words of Augustus on his final will and record of his achievements, put up in bronze and marble throughout the empire:

Those who killed my father I drove into exile, by way of the courts, exacting vengeance for their crime . . . I did not accept permanent the consulship that was offered to me (Augustus, Res Gestae 2, 5)

This claim of Augustus relates to his defeats of Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium (31 BCE), and before that of Brutus and Cassius at the battle of Philippi (42 BCE), following their assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. From the perspective of Augustus, Actium and Philippi were acts of vengeance; from the perspective of Brutus, Cassius, Cicero and others, the battles spelled the final death throes of the Roman republic, as the young successor to Caesar established his rule through civil war. Vengeance is a common human phenomenon, but the vengeance of Augustus for the killing of his father is a theme already in Dylan, before this album which clearly continues the themes.

The voice of Augustus is heard on “False Prophet” at a couple of points:

Well I’m the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife . . .

I’m first among equals, second to none

The last of the best, you can bury the rest

Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold

Put ’em six feet under and I pray for their souls

Augustus was proud of his claim to be “first among equals” which upheld the fiction that the system, effectively a monarchy, was still a republic—those are hard to hold onto, then as now.[8] And this talk of burying ’em takes us back to “Pay in Blood,” its final verse with its allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the ominous and threatening tone brought back to life in “False Prophet”:

This is how I spend my days

I came to bury not to praise

I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone

I pay in blood but not my own

That is what happened across twenty years of the Roman civil war, initiated when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 BC: by the year 30, Augustus, “last of the best,” buried Antony, as Antony and he buried Brutus and Cassius, they all buried Julius Caesar, and Caesar buried Pompey.

Elsewhere in “False Prophet,” like Augustus, the singer has again come for vengeance:

I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said

I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

Some have also seen in the song the particularly grisly death of Marcus Licinius Crassus:

Put out your hand, there’s nothin’ to hold

Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold

At least two Roman generals were reported to have died by having their mouths stuffed with gold. The “Choking on Gold” section of Tom Holland’s popular book, Rubicon, tells of Manius Aquillius, the Roman general killed when Mithridates VI had molten gold poured down his throat in 88 BCE (Appian, Roman History 3.21.1). In 54 BCE, the defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus is said to have suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Parthians who, after they killed him, “poured molten gold into his mouth in mockery” of his obsession with wealth (Cassius Dio, Roman History 40.27). Dylan may have met the rich man, Crassus (a.k.a. Laurence Olivier) back in 1960, the villain in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.[9]


My Own Version of You

The singer is putting together his creation, with the components of the song reflecting the composite nature of his own version. A rather grisly opening suggestion of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, with the singer looking for “limbs and livers and brains and hearts,” and quoting Shakespeare (“Well, it must be ‘the winter of my discontent’” and later “Can you tell me what it means, ‘to be or not to be’”) has the singer drawing from a broad range of literary contexts high, low, religious and secular. The creation he will jump-start to life by sticking a knife in its ribs recalls not only the original rib-creation in Genesis, but also has bits of “Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando” (not the Godfather Pacino) and even Gulliver’s Travels (getting “gunpowder from ice”). Dylan’s new creation will be made to play piano like “Leon Russell, Liberace, and John the Apostle.” St. Peter and Jerome are there, though Jerome turns out to be Bo Diddley’s from the song “Bring it to Jerome”—written by his maracas player Jerome Green—rather than (or along with?) the fifth-century theologian and historian, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, who would become St Jerome. Putting these two culturally distinct Jeromes together, like turning John the Apostle into a piano player, is vintage Dylan. That more ancient Jerome translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin (the so-called “Vulgate”), before and after the year 400, long before the First Crusade of 1096–1099, making it accessible to the Latin-speaking West. Raphael Falco suggests that Jerome, addressing God, would have thought of his translation as “my own version of You.”

The song itself is a literary Frankenstein, a work made up through its references and allusions to some of the elements that have gone into Dylan’s songwriting. Others will identify many of these, including the line “I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind,” taken it seems from Mary Shelley’s actual novel.[10] The line that follows in the song (“I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind”) draws attention to Dylan’s humanistic aims, which I have noted elsewhere, and to which I will return.[11] The song is hugely important in Dylan’s self-revelation on this album, by which of course I mean the revelation of what has gone into his art. But in keeping with the theme of this article I limit myself to a couple of references, having to do with Julius Caesar and Virgil, the general and the poet from the first century BC, 400 years before Jerome, so “Long before the first Crusade / Way back ‘fore England or America were made”—words that come right after quoting from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dylan makes it clear he is going back to the classical world, a world in which he can “see the history of the whole human race.” First Virgil, Rome’s greatest poet,

Stand over there by the Cypress tree

Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery

This allusion is well concealed, looking at first glimpse as if it is quoting the title of Euripides’ anti-war play of 415 BC, The Trojan Women. But that is an old Dylan trick; remember “Early Roman Kings.” In fact it is Virgil’s epic Aeneid that is here put in play. The second book of that poem is narrated by the defeated Trojan prince Aeneas, who instructs his family where to meet as they leave the burning Troy: “Nearby an ancient cypress stands.” Aeneas a little later sees “Trojan boys / and trembling women stand in a long line.” That is where Dylan’s cypress tree and Trojan woman and children point us, to the same poem he quoted from in “Lonesome Day Blues”—the epic poem that will be part of the backdrop of “Mother of Muses.”

Then there is the case of Julius Caesar, who for this song has an air of authority:

I pick a number between one and two

And ask myself what would Julius Caesar do

In a few songs we will find out what Julius Caesar would do: he would and did cross the Rubicon. But I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of a different “JC” here, as in “What would Jesus do?” This is just the beginning of the merging of the two figures. “Mother of Muses” will bring it back home to Virgil.

Such merging once had a different name—transfiguration—the term Dylan would use to describe intertextuality, so applying a metaphor having to do with becoming someone else through allusion.[12] And Julius Caesar was one of the characters he had in mind, back in one of his more interesting interviews:

Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Winston Churchill. You just never know because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.

The transfiguration, with at least a few of these characters, continues on the new album, starting with Julius Caesar. That interview, “Bob Dylan Unleashed”[13] also seems to take on a new life as Dylan sings, “Mother of Muses, unleash your wrath.”


Black Rider

At one point I thought the song “Black Rider” had nothing to do with the classical world, and whatever it is about, that is still largely true. The song was also of interest because of the (for a Dylan song) unusual obscene line, “The size of your cock will get you nowhere.” You have to go back to the Basement Tapes to find even an approximation of that, and even there innuendo, and Dylan’s laughter, soften the effect: “Look, Missus Henry / There’s only so much I can do / Why don’t you look my way / An’ pump me a few?” Carl Wilson, reviewing the new album for Slate, even tried—with what authority we are not told—to talk us out of hearing the line as it was clearly intended: “Although I do have to disappoint some listeners and say that I’m pretty sure the line here many advance reviewers have heard as ‘the size of your cock will get you nowhere’ actually refers to ‘the size of your cockerel.’” What a cockerel would be doing in this song we are not told! The official lyrics remove any doubt. On June 22 Scott Warmuth showed us where this line of the song came from, the ninth satire of Juvenal (second century AD), the Lenny Bruce of the Roman world, who has the equivalent of a male prostitute,[14] not getting much business, lament, “The fantastic size of your cock will get you precisely nowhere.” Translations again are important.[15] Dylan found this line in Peter Green’s 1967 Penguin translation, the same translator whose Penguin translation of Ovid’s exile poems he had drawn from on Modern Times. Dylan had already used a line from Juvenal (“the pimp was already dismissing the girls”) in the song “Tempest” (“Davey the brothel keeper / Came out, dismissed his girls”). In another verse of that song the host was pouring brandy and “he stayed right to the end / He was the last to go”—just like Roman empress Messalina in Juvenal’s same poem, who stays on after the girls have been dismissed: “She stayed till the end, always the last to go.” So it is natural for Dylan to quote from Juvenal’s poem here, but worth noting that such verbatim quotation is an oddity for this album, whereas his other albums from this century all seemed to do so freely. The oddity also explains the unusual obscenity, reserved for the Black Rider, who is no friend of the singer.


Mother of Muses

In “The Lost Land,” the riveting second chapter of Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan writes of the early 60s, “Invoking the poetic muse was something I didn’t know about yet” (45). That had changed well before he wrote “Mother of Muses,” but this song shows Dylan in full control of the epic tradition of which he is the greatest contemporary inheritor. This is hardly surprising: the opening words of this song, “Mother of Muses sing for me,” pick up where Dylan left off, with the last words he published before releasing the new album, the final sentence of his brilliant Nobel Lecture of June 12, 2017: “I return once again to Homer, who says ‘Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story.’” The opening verse of the song is also the introduction to the rest of the album, whose next three increasingly longer songs deliver their epic messages of assassination (“Crossing the Rubicon” 7:23; “Key West” 9:34; “Murder Most Foul” 16:55). Some have found “Murder Most Foul” to be too long. I am not one of those, but here it is worth noting that is what epics do, they go on. As Samuel Johnson wrote in his Life of Milton, of Paradise Lost, greatest of English epic poems, “None ever wished it longer than it is.” And why “Mother of Muses” (Mnemosyne, or “Memory”) instead of one of the Muses, as in the Homeric poems and in the Nobel Lecture? Perhaps so he can keep the single Muse, Calliope (“beautiful voice”), muse of epic poetry, for the special role she plays in the second half of the song—where she is more than just a muse: “I’m in love with Calliope,” a brilliant touch that is pure Dylan in its mix of tradition and originality, a touch which turns the song into a love song, a song of longing for Calliope.

Calliope’s mother introduces the epic that characterizes this song’s first half and the three songs that close out the album. Her function is traditional: “Sing of honor and faith and glory be / Mother of Muses, sing for me . . . Sing of the heroes who stood alone / Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone.” The Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid, already put in play in “My Own Version of You,” provide examples of the invocation of the Muses as a prelude to memorializing the fighters of old. In the second book of the Iliad, the poet invokes the Muses for help in recalling the names of the Greek heroes who came to Troy: “Tell me now, you Muses, you who have your homes on Olympus . . . who were the leaders and lords of the Greeks” (2.484–7). And in Book 8 of the Odyssey, a number of whose lines ended up on the songs of Tempest, the bard Demodocus brings tears to Odysseus’ eyes by singing of the struggle at Troy so vivid in the hero’s memory: “the Muse inspired the bard / to sing the famous deeds of fighting heroes.”

Virgil, writing several centuries after Homer and in a different linguistic culture, adapted the Homeric catalog of ships to his Italian epic setting:

O goddesses (i.e. Muses), now open Helicon

And guide my song: what kings were spurred to war;

What squadrons filled the plain behind each chieftain;

With what heroes mothering Italy then flowered;

With what arms she caught fire. For goddesses,

You can remember and can recall; the slender

Breath of that fame can scarcely reach down to us

They can remember, because their mother, the mother of the Muses, is Mnemosyne, Greek for “Memory.” Virgil’s invocation underscores memory words (meministis “remember” . . . memorare “call to mind”). These are essential parts of poetry, as they are of song for Dylan—“memorize these lines, and remember these rhymes,” as the in-performance words of “Tangled Up in Blue” have it.

Virgil’s invocation precedes not just the almost two-hundred line catalog of Italian warriors, but, like “Mother of Muses,” the entire second half of the epic that follows. For Virgil, five more bloody books showing what it cost to build Rome; for Dylan, three songs of assassination—Caesar, McKinley, Kennedy. Dylan’s lines too, like those of Virgil, are traditional and original at the same time, rooted in their Homeric and Virgilian precedents. No catalogue of the Greek generals here though, no Italian warriors whose job it would be to “teach peace to the conquered and tame the proud.” Instead, in an updating of Homer and Virgil, Dylan invokes the heroes of modern history: “Sing of the Heroes who stood alone / Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone.” The next verse includes a list of those generals who fought for the freedoms that America enjoys, in the wars against the Confederacy and Nazi Germany:

Sing of Sherman—Montgomery and Scott

And of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought

Who cleared the path for Presley to sing

Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King

Who did what they did and then went on their way

Man, I could tell their stories all day

That is Dylan’s vision in this song. Whether Montgomery is James Montgomery, the abolitionist friend of John Brown, who led a troop of Black soldiers in the Civil War, or—more likely—Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, aka “Monty,” the British general of World War II (played by Michael Bates in the 1970 film Patton), we will never know. Those are the two wars of the song, though, the wars that let Elvis Presley sing the blues and Martin Luther King go to the mountain. Zhukov might seem an oddity, but Dylan is thinking not of the Cold War warrior of Stalin, but of the Russian general who fought the Germans at Leningrad and Stalingrad. As for the Civil War heroes, certainly it is welcome to see spelled out here some of the “names of the heroes I’s made to memorize,” as he put it almost sixty years ago in “With God on Our Side.” Mnemosyne did her job well! And now he’s with Calliope, who in the brilliant and haunting second half of this song has become his lover, joining him on his odyssey home, now much more than a muse, even if Dylan’s muses have always also been his lovers:

Take me to the river and release your charms

Let me lay down a while in your sweet lovin’ arms

Wake me—shake me—free me from sin

Make me invisible like the wind

Got a mind to ramble—got a mind to roam

I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow coming home

A final thought. The song that starts with Homer and his Muse, like the Nobel Lecture that the opening of this song also picks up on, seems to end, like the lecture, with its eye on Cavafy’s great poem, Ithaca.[16] That poem tells us not to hurry home, but likewise to ramble and roam in the odyssey which for Cavafy as for Dylan becomes life itself:

Keep Ithaca always in your mind.

Arriving there is what has been ordained for you

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts many years[17]

Or as Dylan puts it, “I’m slow coming home.”


Crossing the Rubicon

Whatever the various other meanings inherent in “Mother of Muses,” it is surely here functioning as Dylan’s epic invocation to the three songs that follow. So he moves to the closing epic triad of the album, each founded on political assassination: Julius Caesar (44 BCE), William McKinley (1901) and John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1963). Of the first of these, Carl Wilson put it one way in his review in Slate:

Crossing the Rubicon” is a diss-track/battle-rap/crawling-kingsnake number in which, like several times here, Dylan imagines himself as a strutting ancient Roman general, promising, “I’ll make your wife a widow / You’ll never see old age.

That is to tie down the stream of consciousness to one particular actor, though who the general would be is hard to say. Not Julius Caesar, since he was the one whose wife would be made a widow, five years after he crossed the Rubicon.

Everything about the slow blues, “Crossing the Rubicon,” catches the importance of that act, particularly the voice and drama of the refrain itself, along with the momentous lines that precede,[18] together making it clear the act is not just difficult, but life-changing. In crossing the river in northeastern Italy that was the boundary south of which he was not, under republican rules, to lead his army, Caesar effectively declared war on Rome. His motive was to avoid prosecution at the hands of his enemies in Rome. As Holland put it:

He finally caught up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon. There was a moment’s dreadful hesitation, and then he was crossing its swollen waters into Italy, towards Rome. No one could know at the time, but 460 years of the free Republic were being brought to an end.

The historian Appian, writing in Greek 200 years after the events, records an anecdote, beyond the familiar “the die is cast,” that catches the moment of the crossing. Caesar is said to have stopped before the stream going back and forth in his mind pondering the results of a crossing: “My friends, if I do not make this crossing, it will be the beginning of troubles for me; if I do make it, it will be the beginning of troubles for the whole world.” Then speaking like a man inspired, he surged across, uttering the familiar phrase, “Let the die be cast.” The singer seems to have things on his mind in the first of the epic poems he sings after seeking inspiration from the mother of the Muses:

The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows

Redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose

Three miles north of purgatory—one step from the great beyond

I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon

Again, the mixing and stream of consciousness that is a mark of the album. Dylan seems aware of the lines of the Latin poet Lucan, forced by emperor Nero to commit suicide but not before writing a poem in which the Caesars, among whom Nero, in the century after Julius Caesar’s death, would be numbered:

The bright red river Rubicon flows from modest spring through the bottom of a valley, valleys, dividing Gaul from Italian lands (Lucan, Pharsalia 1.213–14)

Why a red river? Commentators on Lucan in antiquity have thought because of the red gravel in the river bed, but Lucan is a poet, and he is playing with etymologies, real or otherwise (in Latin rubeo = “be red”), pointing of the rivers of the Mediterranean world that will be turned red with the blood of civil war once the Rubicon is crossed, where through that etymology the Rubicon pays in blood. Dylan, who has I think read his Lucan, picks up on all of this: “redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose.” You won’t find red rivers in Dylan without the memory of girls who come from their shores, and the official lyrics specify that the “Rubicon is the Red River,” in caps, and not a red river or the red river (all italics mine). Perhaps the singer still has Calliope on his mind even as he crosses the Rubicon, alluding in the process to “the one that I’ll always adore” from “Red River Shore,” the brilliant outtake from Time Out of Mind, to which the new album takes us back in so many ways. And finally there is the film Red River, which Bob Zimmerman probably saw as a boy, if not when it came out in 1948 then when it reran in one of the Hibbing theaters he regularly frequented.

Caesar also resembles Christ or some sort of Christ or Christian figure, both in the second verse (“I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon”), and in the sixth: “I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.” By vote of the Senate, Julius Caesar will, after his death, become a god, the “divine Caesar.” Jesus on the cross is physically as in other ways between heaven and earth. Also in words from the fifth verse, “I poured the cup, I passed it along and I crossed the Rubicon,” it is hard not to hear the words of Jesus from Matthew 26:39, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But the cups poured in Gethsemane and at the Rubicon were not passed on. The genre-mixing that is effected by this loose and free form of intertextuality conflates Caesar and Christ, each headed home, for the “crooked knives” of political assassination and for the cross on Calvary.


The Ides of March

“Crossing the Rubicon” is one of those songs that begins, or more or less begins, with the naming of a day. “Murder Most Foul” would not name the 22nd, since everybody knows the day, but it was similar: “’Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63.” Elsewhere the date can be somewhat obscure, as at the beginning of “Isis”: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May.” This is a feature of ballad, which naturally enough situates things in time or place commemorating battles or other historical events. So what to do with the beginning of this song? “I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year.” Not very helpful, but as always with detail in Dylan, there is a reason, here making us confront the puzzle. April was for T. S. Eliot the “cruelest” month, but it could also be the most dangerous, if you happened to be Calvin, Blake, or Wilson, or the rich man Mr. Astor, the characters who went down with the Titanic on that night to remember, as Dylan told us in the second verse of the epic “Tempest” from 2012:

’Twas the fourteen [sic] day of April

Over the waves she rode

Sailing into tomorrow

To a golden age foretold

So April 14 might seem like a good candidate, even more so since on the evening of that same day, April 14 of 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot, dying the following day, on April 15. But the 14th of other months are also available. And if you were President McKinley, whom we meet at the beginning of the next song in Dylan’s adaptation of the old bluegrass “White House Blues” (“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled / Doctor said ‘McKinley, death is on the wall’”), then September 14 was pretty dangerous, the day he died after being shot eight days earlier.

But the 14th was also the eve of what for Julius Caesar was emphatically the most dangerous month, March, whose Ides of course fell on the next day, his death day, as was the 15th of the month for Lincoln. That’s where we could imagine being in the non-linear world of the next lines of the poem:

I got up early so I could greet the goddess of the Dawn

I painted my wagon—I abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon

Getting up early and greeting the goddess of the Dawn (Eōs in Greek, Aurora in Latin) is something Caesar shares with Odysseus, for instance in Odyssey 5, the book that lends many lines to the songs of Tempest: “When young Dawn with her rose-red [those colors again] fingers shone once more / Odysseus quickly dressed himself.” This forms a frame to the song with the last line of the song, “I lit the torch and looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon”—Eōs being the word both for the east and dawn: “east where the Goddess Dawn, forever young, has her home” (Odyssey 12).

And as for “I abandoned all hope,” we had already met the fleet footed guides of the Underworld back in “False Prophet,” so no surprise here to meet the Italian poet from the thirteenth century. With him come the words, “abandoned all hope,” from the third line of the third verse of the third canto of the Inferno, first of the three works of the Divine Comedy, the words painted above the entrance to Dante’s “Lasciate ogni speranza” (“Abandon all hope you who enter here”). The mixing of Dante with reference to the 1951 Lerner and Loewe musical, Paint Your Wagon, best known from the 1969 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, is par for the course on this album. The number three stays in the next line, since that is where Dylan’s Caesar crosses the Rubicon: “Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond”—a place that feels like Dante again.

Bob Dylan has had connections to Julius Caesar and his death on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, for a very long time, even from before he was Bob Dylan. The evening of Friday April 5, 1957, in the little Minnesota town of Hibbing found the Shadow Blasters, the band Bob Zimmerman had put together the previous fall, performing at a talent show at Hibbing High School, the first of his performances. Whether or not his vigorous, Little Richard-style piano playing broke a pedal on the instrument cannot be known for sure, but the sophomore certainly made his mark. The school paper, the Hibbing Hi Times, had reported a less spectacular event three weeks earlier:

Societas Latina members today published a paper to celebrate the death of Caesar on the Ides of March (March 15). The paper included Roman history, an original poem, cartoons, and many other items with a Roman background.

Dylan was a member of that Latin Club (Societas Latina), and whatever his contribution to the Ides of March celebration, we may safely assume that he knew from an early age why the day mattered. That was the consequence of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon five years earlier.


Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

There is a lot of death in Rough and Rowdy Ways, particularly in the epic trilogy that closes it out. Death comes for Caesar by the assassins’ knives, crooked or otherwise. Death appears on the wall for McKinley. And above all, death for President Kennedy—“led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb” as they “blew off his head,” had him killed “like a human sacrifice” and “heading straight on into the afterlife”—in a song that makes us revisit it again and again, not quite the thirty-three times that the singer has watched Abraham Zapruder’s filming of the event, but enough to bring the horror of that day back home to anyone old enough to remember it. And of course death is what epic traffics in. But the middle song of the three gives us a brighter glimpse of the afterlife, at least for those who make it to Key West, where death is not the end: “Key West is the place to be / If you’re lookin’ for immortality.”

In “Bob Dylan: Aeneas Visits Key West,” on the extensive and almost always interesting website “Untold Dylan,” Larry Fyffe suggests[19]

the song is figuratively transformed into the Underworld of Greek/Roman mythology, and the singer/songwriter takes on the persona of Virgil’s Aeneas:

Key West is under the sun, under the radar, under the gun

You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right

Feel the sun on your skin, and the healing virtues of the wind

Key West, Key West is the land of light

Some may find the evidence he adduces slight, in these lines and in the instructions his guide the Sibyl gives to Aeneas: “the regions to the left . . . punished the wicked for their misdeeds. But the road to the right led to the Elysian Field.” However this detail and other aspects of the song indeed resonate with Virgil’s account of Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld in Aeneid 6, and ending up in the magical Elysium, where in Robert Fagles’ translation,

They gained the land of joy, the fresh green fields,

The Fortunate Groves where the blessed make their homes.

Here a freer air, a dazzling radiance clothes the fields

And the spirits possess their own sun, their own stars[.]

As with the Elysian Fields, or the parallel ancient tradition of the Isles of the Blessed, likewise immune to the troubles of the world, Key West is a land the poetic imagination creates, to evade the strife and destiny of the mortal human condition, a place that is “fine and fair,” “truly blessed,” where “winter . . . is an unknown thing,” the road to “innocence and purity,” a “paradise divine,” to quote from throughout the song. It is where immortality is to be found, but only for some.

Back in “My Own Version of You” the singer had quoted Virgil’s Aeneas as he prepares to move his people out of the burning Troy: “Stand over there by the Cypress tree / Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery.” Some resisters may also want to put this down to coincidence, but Dylan’s intertextuality is clear, instructions to stand by a specific cypress tree, and the presence of Trojan women and children being sold into slavery. That is a non-Homeric moment that happens as Troy falls and only in the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid. “My Own Version of You” is a sort of glossary and concordance for the album, its Frankenstein elements, a.k.a. intertextualities, the “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” that are the “necessary body parts” he will graft onto a number of the album’s songs, “Key West” not least.

To return to the Elysian Fields, Bob Dylan has stayed here before, not quite a thousand nights ago, and he takes us back with deliberate allusivity. On April 1, 2017, where his guide was neither the Sibyl nor Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, those “fleet footed guides from the Underworld” of “False Prophet,” but the late Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, who showed Dylan the image of the Nobel Prize Medal she and the other members of the Academy presented to him on that day. For almost six months this group, having announced their righteous decision of October 13 of the previous year, had been buffeted by the winds of ignorance and limited vision. Now was the time for them to celebrate with their new laureate: nunc est bibendum. As she recalled, and as I have reported before:[20]

Spirits were high. Champagne was had. Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes, loosely translated as “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found artistry.”

That Virgilian line, the one on the medal—the only illustration in my book, I note—comes from the same description of the poets now in the Elysian Fields, described in the line that follows as ”those we remember well for the good they did mankind.” Or in the words of Dylan learning Sanskrit and Arabic (not Greek and Latin?) in the same “My Own Version of You”: “I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind.”

Virgil was himself something of a philosopher pirate, or at least a pirate philosopher. For his Elysian Fields, he raided the eschatological thinking he found in Platonic philosophy, Eleusinian, Orphic, and Jewish mystery writings, all available to him in Greek. Christianity would provide a different solution, but the mind of Virgil, who died in 19 BCE, created its own possibilities, its own intertextually created version of the afterlife. In his account, the souls of the dead will revisit the world after a thousand years, years which “cleanse our hard, inveterate stains and leave us clear / ethereal sense, the eternal breath of fire purged and pure” (6.863–640). Dylan the philosopher pirate has in turn stolen these ideas and put them into his own version, the land he creates in “Key West”, the “gateway key / To innocence and purity.”

The song, already taking its place as a masterpiece among the very greatest he has written, is a testament to Dylan’s immortality, with Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac, to be sure, but also with Homer, Virgil and Dante, with a final nod to Milton. So “If you’re lookin’ for immortality / Key West is paradise divine.” Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy, both in that phrase. Once upon a time, 40 years ago, Bob Dylan struggled with perfecting another masterpiece, now available as more than one masterpiece in bootlegged and official versions. In “Caribbean Wind,” set somewhere where that wind blows “from Nassau to Mexico” and not so far from the real Key West, Dylan was “playing a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy.” Milton was there with Dante, by way of the elusive “rose of Sharon from Paradise Lost.” They have joined the classical poets in the mind of Bob Dylan. Paradise lost or paradise regained, on the horizon line of Key West, it doesn’t much matter. “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there.” So ends a song that starts with a 1901 presidential assassination—“McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled”—an old, though not-so-old folk song, recorded by Charlie Poole in 1926, and rewritten and recorded by bluegrass artist Bill Monroe in 1954. Old, new, high, low, all meaningless terms for an art that refuses to be tied down: “Don’t make a bit of difference, don’t see why it should.”

“Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain.” So said Dylan to Douglas Brinkley of the classical world that he saw behind “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the song he wrote 50 years ago. The Muses live on mountains, and that is where you get inspiration, whether you are Moses, Milton, or Martin Luther King. The Muses live on Mt Helicon, sometimes on Parnassus, and that is where the Greeks and Romans visited them. It is good to see Bob Dylan still spends time on those particular mountains, to hear how he has brought down from them new songs, handed to him by Calliope and her mother, and transfigured with much else into this remarkable new album.

With thanks for valuable suggestions and corrections to the editors, to friends and colleagues in Dylan, old and new, Terry Gans, John Henderson, Andrew Muir and Marco Zoppas, to Harvard students past and present who know their Dylan, Vivian Jin, Sam Puopolo, Ben Roy, and Joan Thomas, none of whom are responsible for remaining deficiencies.

[1] I have long wondered whether the “corpse evangelists” of this song, for whom the girls are “memorizing politics of ancient history,” along with the overly serious “self-ordained professor’s tongue,” not to mention the mongrel dogs who teach, might all have to do with a less-than-happy memory—by 1964 one of his “ancient memories”—of something actually experienced in a Minneapolis classroom four years earlier. Stranger things have happened.

[2] See Thomas, 2017, 80–84, on the presence of Virgil’s fourth, messianic Eclogue in drafts of “Changing of the Guards.”

[3] “A Man of Strong Opinions”:

[4] This question seemed similarly random, and here too part of Dylan’s response was tantalizing. After talking about why he and his band don’t do bluegrass (as if they might!), he says, “I listen to Bill Monroe a lot, but I more or less stick to what I can do best.” Would that include Monroe’s version of the song “White House Blues” (“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled / Doc said, ‘McKinley I can’t find the cause’”) on the assassination of McKinley, with which “Key West” will begin?

[5] Thomas, 2017, 131–32.

[6] Thomas, 2017, 89–91.

[7] Thomas, 2017, 254–68 “Dylan Becomes Odysseus”

[8] Augustus, Res Gestae 34.3: “I excelled everyone in influence, but I had no more power than my other colleagues in each office.”

[9] See Thomas, 2017, 54 for the likelihood of this encounter.

[10] Frankenstein, Ch. 6 (“The Persian, Arabic, and Sanscrit languages engaged his attention”).

[11] See Thomas, 2017, 17.

[12] See Thomas, 2017, 119–27, “The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan”; also 164–67

[13] Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone September 27, 2012

[14] Or, to quote Susanna Braund’s description in the Loeb Classical Library Juvenal (p. 348), “The client in this poem is Naevolus (‘Mr. Warty’), a man who has interpreted his duties rather broadly to include satisfying the patron’s desire to be penetrated in anal intercourse, having sex with the patron’s wife at the patron’s request, and fathering the patron’s children.” This situation could also inform another striking line in “Black Rider,” though the line does not seem specifically to come from Juvenal: “Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine.”

[15] See Thomas 2017, 239, on the importance of the specific translation in activating intertextuality.

[16] See Thomas, 2017, 262–63 for the echoes of Cavafy’s poem in Dylan’s lecture.

[17] Cavafy, Ithaca (tr. Theoharis)

[18] These are worth isolating: “I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope”; “I prayed to the cross, I kissed the girls”; “I embraced my love, put down my hair”; “I pawned my watch, I paid my debts”; “I poured the cup, I passed it along”; “I stood between heaven and earth”; “I’ll strap my belt, I’ll button my coat”; “I turned the key and broke it off”; “I lit the torch, I looked to the east.” Each of them suggests a decisive situation, its drama only heightened by the final “And I crossed the Rubicon.”


[20] Thomas, 2017, 12.

Kenneth Daley is Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of The Rescue of Romanticism: Walter Pater and John Ruskin (Ohio UP, 2001) and other essays and book chapters. Currently, he is editing Volume 6, Appreciations, and Studies and Reviews, 1890-1895, for The Collected Works of Walter Pater to be published by Oxford University Press.

Jonathan Hodgers received his PhD in music from Trinity College Dublin, where he currently lectures in popular music. His core areas of interest are song lyrics, the music of the 50s and 60s, audiovisual aesthetics, and music in movies. Dylan and Cinema, his forthcoming monograph for Routledge, brings together these strands by taking a close look at Bob Dylan as a filmmaker.

Nick Smart is Professor of English at The College of New Rochelle and lives in New York City. He has written about Bob in Dylan in Tearing the World Apart: Bob Dylan and the Twentieth Century (2017) and in The Journal of Popular Music and Society (2009). He is co-editor of Dylan at Play (2009).

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 Traditions 22.1 (2007), “Shadows are Falling: Virgil, Radnóti, and Dylan, and the Aesthetics of Pastoral Melancholy.” Rethymnon Classical Studies 3 (2007).

The Dylan Review would like to thank Nicole Font, Marina Pieretti, Clay Vogel, and Chris Walker for their contributions to this issue.

“Memorize these lines, and remember these rhymes”: New York Sessions of Blood on the Tracks

ARTICLE BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University

This contribution is deliberately limited in scope, though I hope of interest in the broader implications about how a great work of art comes to be, even in the final, or penultimate, moments of its perfecting. Out of all the various stages of composition of the songs of Bob Dylan’s mid-1970s classic Blood on the Tracks (hereafter BotT) that are emerging from the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, out of all the changes that occur in the Minnesota sessions that gave us the studio album, and all the changes in performance that followed as Dylan began presenting songs in concert, starting with “Simple Twist of Fate” on November 8, 1975 at Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont—out of all of these transformations I am here focused on only one aspect, what happened to the lyrics, that is the words, of the songs in A&R Studios in New York City between September 16 and 19 of 1974. With the issuing of the six-CD release More Blood More Tracks (hereafter MBMT) on November 2, 2018, we were provided with the eighty-seven takes from those four days that lead to the making of the album that famously did not come out till Dylan rewrote and rerecorded five of the songs in Minneapolis on December 27 and 30 of the same year. The now official bootleg of that album, its songs in the same order as on BotT, can be reconstructed from the six CDs: 5.3, 5.5, 3.3, 5.10, 4.2, 2.5, 1.11, 4.13, 3.15, 4.12. The only material extraneous to the four days that I include comes from what is acknowledged as the closest to a final draft, the 5 x 3 inch red notebook (hereafter RN) housed in the George Heckscher Collection of the Morgan Library in New York City, whose contents are reproduced in Stories in the Press, one of the two booklets issued with MBMT. At times RN agrees with initial takes of the songs, at other times with later takes against those initial ones.

The changes across the four days are generally small, slight changes that help the meter, emphasis or tone, while others reveal Dylan’s restless desire to get it right, even when it already seems just right, like the first two solo takes of “You’re a Big Girl Now.” What they show is an artist creating verbal and lyrical perfection in the midst of getting the music and accompaniment to the right place. I take no account of Ellen Bernstein, who may have helped here and there. My interest is Dylan and the artist working in his own head. I more or less ignore the changes in accompaniment (acoustic to “Deliverance” band to Dylan and bass), though do notice Dylan’s interactions with the various musicians, for which, as for much else, readers should consult Clinton Heylin, No One Else Could Play That Tune (Route 2018). I leave out “Up to Me” and “Call Letter Blues,” focusing only on the album that Dylan gave us.


“Tangled Up in Blue”

The first take of the song (I use “take” to indicate any attempt, corresponding to the track numbers of each of the discs), with Tony Brown on bass, came at the end of the first day (Disc 3.1). Dylan made it right through the song and after four more takes (3.5, 3.11, 5.1, 5.2), the song is where he wanted it, 5.3. For this song the lyrics changed very little between 3.1 and 6.3, but what changes do occur show Dylan working to get it right, even after it is hard-wired:

3.1                                             5.3
he was lyin’ in bed (RN)        he was layin’ in bed
this can’t be the end (RN)     this ain’t the end
and offered it to me               and handed it to me (also RN)
pourin’ out of every page     pourin’ off of every page (RN)

The first person verses 1–3 of the BotT version (“I was layin;” etc.) are consistently in the third person on all takes of MBMT (“he was lyin’”, “their folks”, “their lives”, “as far as they could”, “he was alone”, etc.). The complexity of the song’s pronouns twice causes Dylan to stop as he gets the gender wrong. On 6.2 he gives us “…bankbook wasn’t big enough / And she wa…,” just stopping where he should have sung “And he was standing…” At 5.2 he begins the second verse “He was married” stops playing, and in frustration says “Oh, she was married.” But generally the song was where he wanted it, including the completely different first nine lines of the penultimate verse, with no sign of Montague Street or revolution in the air: “He was always in a hurry … And when it all came crashing down.” All but one version give “He thought they were successful, she thought they were blessed” (RN “He thinks … she thinks”), only version 5.3 giving an interesting variant, presumably just a slip of the tongue, “She thought they were successful, he thought they were blessed.”


“Simple Twist of Fate”

The lyrics of this song went through some small but meaningful changes, with five takes on the first day, two solo (1.5, 1.6) and three with the band (2.1, 2.2, 2.3) then two on the last, Dylan with bass (5.4, 5.5), the second of these becoming the final BotT version. This was the first song accompanied by the band, and the difficulties show when in 2.2 Dylan stops in the middle of the second verse, noting “the drummer seems to … the drums are, uh, one second behind.” Uniquely, on this version he had also sung the second line “a little mixed up, I remember well”, though the previous solo versions have the clearly superior “a little confused.” In RN we find “mixed up” with superscript “shy.”

Across the two days Dylan wrestles with some key lines, eventually getting it right. For verse 3 RN had “the light bust through the beat-up shade” (with subscript “cut-up”), then repeats the verse, writing “bust through the torn-up shade.” But on the first solo take he sang “beat through a busted shade” (1.5), then “came through a beat-up shade” (1.6), before getting back to the sonorous “bust through a beat-up shade” (2.1ff). That sounds better, and as Dylan has said “you want your song to sound good” (Nobel Lecture). More than sound is involved in another set of revisions as the song’s male subject “hunts her down by the waterfront dock,” the morning after. In RN the incomplete fifth verse ends with things as they should and would eventually be, giving the woman agency: “Maybe she’ll pick him out again,” though the following “How long must he wait” is not yet there. In 5.4 and 5.5 Dylan gets there, though in the preceding versions on September 16 he wanders: “maybe she’ll spot him” (1.5) “maybe he’ll pick her out” (1.6, 2.1) “maybe he’ll spot her” (2.3). A final detail adds to the perfection of this song. In all but the final version guitar and harmonica riffs come between the second and third and the fourth and fifth stanzas, but by the final version Dylan has a final riff at the end of the song, and now for the first time in the very middle of the song, following the third verse in which she is leaving the strange hotel, and before the fourth in which he wakes to find her gone.


“You’re a Big Girl Now”

On September 19, in the final attempts to get the song (6.1), Dylan stops after the fourth line: “Na,” he says, “I can’t get into it. I think we must have had it on the other one.” “Want to do it?” he asks Tony Brown, and they start, this time only getting through the first two words (”Our conversation”), at which point he notes “it calls for a small transfiguration,” interestingly uttering the word that he will use 38 years later in 2012 in a Rolling Stone interview in which he talks about his own “transfiguration” in connection with his interaction with literary figures, going back to classical antiquity, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Dante, Shakespeare (see Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters 119–27). What he meant by “transfiguration” in 1974 we will never know, but he launches back into a third attempt, this time getting through the first line of the second verse, “Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence.” At this point he concludes “No we ain’t gonna do it better. I can just keep hearing that organ.” This presumably refers to the two takes with which he opened the session on September 17 (3.2 and 3.3, the latter of which, test pressing for BotT, was released on Biograph in 1985). In the event, the earlier versions were not deemed satisfactory. For BotT he made minor changes to the lyrics, mostly in the last verse: “can be extreme” becomes metrically superior in “is known to be extreme,” and “What’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?” is an improvement on “But it ain’t like changing …” Dylan may have been unhappy with the order of the verses. In none of the complete takes (1.3, 1.4, 3.2, 3.3) is the order as it would come to be on BotT. In three of these, verse 4 precedes verse 3, and in the other verse 4 precedes verse 2.


“Idiot Wind”

The song that would undergo the most extensive changes between September and December of 1974 was relatively stable across the seven takes in A&R Studios, the last (5.10), with organ overdubs, released on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3. On the first take (2.7) “Heading down the backroads going south” in verse 2, is found nowhere else, and is just a slip, corrected in subsequent takes to “Going down…headin’ south.” RN already has the ultimate “Blowing down.” “Still can even breath” in verses 2 and 5 (2.7, 2.8) are already corrected to “still know how to breathe” (also RN) by the end of the first day. In the first take the priest “waltzed around on a tilted floor” (as in RN 1) the earliest take that gets that far into the song (2.8), but by the next take he “sat stone-faced while the building burned,” while in RN 2 he “waltzed around while the building burned.” Only the first version, and RN 1, have in the first verse “just don’t know how to act” for “just can’t remember,” though RN 1 has an erasure of “know” with superscript “remember.” In the next line both have the much less effective line “Their minds are filled with bad ideas/ideals, images and recorded fact”, with “big” ideas and “distorted” facts soon taking their rightful place and painting a more complex picture of his adversaries. Understandably, this challenging song has some false starts. In the first take (2.7) Dylan sings, in verse 3 the lyric of verse 1, “every time you move your mouth” (which, unlike the correct “teeth”, is not going to rhyme with “breathe’ two lines later, so after singing the next line “you’re an idiot, babe” he simply stops. On the fourth try (2.10) the song only makes it through “Someone’s got it in for me,” Dylan interjecting “No, let’s try it again, let’s run that back,” which he then successfully does. When he returns to the song on September 19, he restarts (5.8) in the middle of the first verse (“OK, one more time), then makes it through the first line of the third verse (“Woah. Let’s start again. Wipe that off”) before producing the version of the song that many consider its finest instantiation.


“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”

Another difficult song, with nine consecutive attempts on the first day (2.12–2.20) and with the initial take stopping after the first verse, as Dylan has problems with the band: “What’s the matter? We’re getting out of time.” After a false start (2.13), on the next try he gets halfway through the third verse, humming after stopping following “…if you don’t know.” Ironically the next line would have been “Can’t remember what I was thinking of.” On another version (2.18) he stops after adding syllables to the lyric and losing rhythm “And it always has hit me from below.” On another (2.17) he sings the fourth line of the fourth verse (“But there’s no way I can compare”) instead of that of the second (“This time round it’s more correct”), expressing his annoyance, several takes in: “No! Let’s try it again. Roll that tape back.” Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in spite of the response “OK, hang on” and the sound of a tape rolling back. After the first version that makes it all the way through (2.15) Dylan says “Let’s do it again,” perhaps because he transposed the two bridges, “You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doing …” preceding “Flowers on the hillside bloomin’ crazy,” perhaps because of another inversion leading to a slight lapse in the lyric: “Relationships have all been bad / Situations have ended sad.” At 2.19 in the second verse he begins singing the fourth verse “All the way I” and stops with a disgusted “no!” “Chirping crickets talking back in rhyme” in earlier takes finally gets to the right place (“Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme”) in 2.20. As much as with any song what comes across with this continuous run is the determination of Dylan to get it right. That happens when he returns to the song the next day, the second of two versions (4.2) going onto BotT.


“Meet Me in the Morning”

RN does not include this relatively simple song, sung only once in performance, on September 19, 2007, the 33rd anniversary to the day after he sang it last, on September 19, 1974 (5.13). The changes across the five versions are all very slight, for the most part consisting of alternation of “Well you know,” “Honey you know,” and similar line beginnings. The first take, 2.5, was chosen for BotT, with the fourth verse, here audible, edited out, though printed in Bob Dylan, The Lyrics 1961–2012:

The birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well, the birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well now, I ain’t got no matches
And the station doors are closed

On 5.13 he begins halfway through the first verse, his voice cracks on “snow begins”, and he stops. At this point there is an exchange between Dylan and Mick Jagger about who can play slide. Following some discordant notes from Dylan, Jagger agrees with Dylan’s “not me.”


“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”

A true marvel of the sessions, Dylan sang the song twice (1.10, 1.11) on September 16, the first day. The two versions are the same—preferring, with RN, Jim’s “I know I’ve seen that face somewhere” (BotT will prefer “before”)—up to the middle of verse six when 1.10 stops after Dylan gets the start of third line wrong, “But then the houselight did dim ..” and utters a pained “uh!” before going back to the beginning and doing all 16 verses, the ninth verse, “Rosemary started drinkin’ hard…”, coming before the eighth “The hanging judge came in unnoticed …” The omission of 1.11’s twelfth verse, “Lily’s arms were locked around…”, with words that make the Jack less enigmatic by giving us a glimpse into his head (“he felt she was sincere”, “He felt jealousy and fear”), will be the only substantive change in lyrics in the Minnesota remake.


“If You See Her, say Hello”

The uncertainties of the song that will go through radical and utter changes in performance are already apparent in RN, which is incomplete and heavily edits the third stanza (“If you’re making love to her…”). That verse of course will disappear altogether in performance and in the second (2004) and third (2016) official Bob Dylan Lyrics versions— has the verse in its BotT manifestation (“If you get close to her…). But in A&R Studios Dylan seemed decisive about the entirety of the song, as he started out the first session with a pair of haunting solo versions (1.1, 1.2). He only needed one more take, with bass (4.13), to get it where he wanted, and only one change occurs between 1.1 and 1.2, the dropping of “both” (also absent from RN) in “I hear her name both here and there” thus allowing a lengthening and emphasis on “name.” So, the song that would go through wild changes, here comes across with all the sadness at the core of how it all came down so hard, tougher than what we heard in January 1975, but essentially beautiful.


“Shelter from the Storm”

The song got where it needed to get in four takes on September 17. The first (3.9, the version in the film Jerry Maguire) is the odd one out of these, and Dylan seems to have done some revisions before doing versions of “Buckets of Rain” an “Tangled Up in Blue,” then returning to “Shelter from the Storm” with three magnificent takes (3.13, 3.14, 3.15) getting to the master that would be released on BotT. In verse 3 “no risk involved” (3.9, 13, 14) reached its metrical ideal “little risk involved” (only in 3.15), and in the same verse 3.9 was not quite there: “Nothing up to that point had even been resolved” (for the much improved “Everything … been left unresolved” in the three later takes). In verse 6 “uneventful morn” (3.9) changed to “non-eventful morn” (later “long-forgotten”), and in that same first take verse 6 (“Now there’s a wall between us …”) comes after verse 8 (“I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’), while the sixth spot is taken up with a verse that rightly disappeared in subsequent takes:

Now the bonds are broken but they can be retied
For one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide
It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

The newborn babies of verse 8 are at first “cryin’” (3.9, 3.13) but end with exquisite initial-syllable rhyming “babies wailin’” in 3.15.


“Buckets of Rain”

Then there is the final song of Blood on the Tracks, like “Meet Me in the Morning” only performed once, in this case as the opener at The Fox Theater in Detroit on November 18, 1990. Seen as providing the album with a somewhat upbeat closing, it shows the most revision across the sessions of September 17 and 18, and of all the songs seemed most under construction during those days. This is borne out by the only evidence of the song in RN, a detached fragment embedded in the midst of rough drafts of “Idiot Wind”:

Little red monkey, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like
Excuse me baby while I vomit out my load
Your making me crazy, your putting on the road

The content of the throwaway lines 3 and 4 suggest that the song was barely begun, and the first take, on September 17 (3.10) along with subsequent attempts, confirms this suspicion. In the first two attempts (3.10. 3.12), there is no sign of the final verse that will close the song, and the album, with a note of resignation (“Life is sad / Life is a bust …”). Instead, 3.12 looks as if he meant to close the song with repetition of the opening verse (“Buckets of rain /Buckets of tears…”), such ring composition being a venerable form of Dylan’s art, as of folk songs and protestant hymns (“Girl from the North Country,” “Arthur McBride,” “Summer Days”).

I suspect he found repetition on verse 1 a little too upbeat of a closer (“I got all the love, honey baby / You can stand”), so on the night of September 17 or morning of the 18th, added the final verse with its more tentative ending as it would stand on the multiple takes of that next day:

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well,
I’ll do it for you, honey baby
Can’t you tell?

Perfect, though perfection was reached only in the last take, perhaps because he was still writing. Successive versions of line 3 and 4 suggest not so much that Dylan was stumbling over the words, but rather that the words were still coming together: 4.3 “You must do what you do and do it well”; 4.4 “You must do what you do and you do it well”; 4.6 “Oh you do what you do …” stops and exclaims “Ow!”; 4.9 “All you can do is you must do it well”; finally 4.12 “You do what you must do and you do it well”; 4.20 “and do it well.”

The material of verses 3 and 4 had also taken time to get to the final version, in a process that reveals the sensitivity and taste of the songwriter. At first verse 3 had “I like your lips / Like the way you move your hips / I like the way you love me strong and slow,” a progression that may have seemed too sexually graphic. So “fingertips” would replaces “lips,” “lips” replace “hips,” and the third line (“I like … slow”) moved to the fourth verse, where it followed the more playful “I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like.” On one try (4.11) Dylan slipped “I like your smile / And I like your hips / I like the way you move your lips.” He stops, then says “Yeah, this is hard making records like this. You’ve got to keep three or four things going at the same time—just like life.”

And so to conclude, this may not be the greatest song on the album, but it is one that perhaps reveals most about his songwriting in the studio across the days and nights of the sessions.


Dating RN

When did Bob Dylan write the songs in the red notebook? It has been called the “fair copy” It is fairer by far than the orange and blue notebooks in the Tulsa Archive (Box 99, Folder 05 and 06 respectively), though much is still far from fair. From the evidence I have set out RN is exclusively neither prior nor subsequent to those days in September, and I would guess he had it with him at the time. But that remains a guess.


Editors’ Note

For the Articles section of future issues of DR, the Editors invite submissions of full-length critical articles (not to exceed 7000 words) on any aspect of Dylan’s oeuvre from, for example, music and performance to painting and sculpture. All submissions, with the occasional exception of invited authors, will undergo a standard peer-review process.