DR spoke to Laura Tenschert, host of the Definitely Dylan podcast, over videochat in October, followed by an email exchange in December. The Definitely Dylan podcast is available on all podcast platforms; Definitely Dylan radio is available through Spotify; or you can visit definitelydylan.com. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DR: At the 2019, World of Bob Dylan symposium in Tulsa, you gave a presentation that set the conference abuzz? What was the gist of that presentation? And how did you feel it was received?
LT: I wanted to be a part of this conference, because although Definitely Dylan is first and foremost meant to be entertaining and fun, I’m also a recovering academic, so I bring that background into what I talk about. The conference was called “World of Bob Dylan,” so in my presentation, “What’s a Sweetheart Like You Doing in a Dump Like This?,” I wanted to talk about the role of women in that world. My point was that if we want to understand the role women play in Bob Dylan’s work, whether as characters in his songs, or as his collaborators or romantic partners, women need to be part of the conversation. Bob Dylan is one of the most influential figures in popular culture, so we need to be aware that our understanding of his work and his cultural impact is shaped by the fact that the scholarship and criticism has been dominated by men. In fact, one of the few people who had written about Dylan and misogyny at that point was Christopher Ricks. I’m not saying that men cannot weigh in on the topic, but the conversation cannot be led by men! The one quote by a woman that often gets cited is by Marion Meade, who wrote in the New York Times in 1971 that there’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs than “Just Like a Woman.” This line just gets repeated over and over as proof that women think this song is sexist. So in my paper, I asked, “Why aren’t there more updated, more nuanced quotes from women talking about the song?” Why is this fifty-year-old quote still the go-to representative of “the female perspective”?
First of all, there is no such thing as one female perspective, and Meade’s quote merely reflects her own personal outlook, as well as the time at which the piece was written. Some women might find the song sexist, but others won’t. To me personally, “Just Like a Woman” is a song about femininity. The woman sung about has no choice but to play the role allocated to her by the society of her time—she performs her femininity and it gives her power in the moment the male singer is attracted to her. But as a woman in the mid-60s she also holds very little actual power, and so in a moment of weakness, when she isn’t able to perform the role of “woman” anymore, she’s reduced to a “little girl.” No wonder Marion Meade, who was writing only five years after Blonde on Blonde came out, rejected this song, since it represented an idea of womanhood that the second wave feminism of her time was striving to overcome. But also, “Just Like a Woman” has been covered by a lot of female artists, who have all brought out different sides to the song. To me, those covers are part of the conversation. So I think you can’t just ask “is this song sexist or not?” Dylan’s songs are complex and nuanced and their discussion needs to match that.
But there is a very real problem of sexism in the world of Dylan, particularly in the way the male-dominated discourse has treated, or rather mis-treated, the real-life women in Bob Dylan’s life. And I think the “buzz” you refer to in your question came from the fact that I called out a few established Dylan critics for their misogyny. For example, when Bob met Sara, she worked as a secretary for the Time Life company in the film department, and she was the one that introduced Dylan to D.A. Pennebaker, yet the vast majority of books about Dylan reduce her to a “former playboy bunny,” which diminishes her role and makes it all about her looks. Also, why is it that when we think of Dylan’s “muses,” it’s always the white women in Dylan’s life, even though we now know that he was in meaningful relationships with Black women as well. In general, I think the influence of Black women on Dylan’s work is really underrated. The singers in his band from the late 70s to the mid-80s were incredible musicians who helped define his sound at the time and played a prominent role in his stage show, but Clinton Heylin insists on calling them “girlsingers.” I just find that so disrespectful. For example, Clydie King is still so under-appreciated in what she contributed to Dylan’s work, and how deep their connection was. This is something I feel quite strongly about, something that I was pointing out in my talk, that all this is shaped by the fact that the writers on Dylan have historically been very white, and very male, and of a certain generation. And I think that our understanding of Dylan and his collaborators would shift if that pool became more diverse.
In my talk, I was making the case for why we need more women, but the same case can and should be made for more LGBTQ people, and more non-white people. And I think, at the 2019 conference, there were almost exclusively white people. So that is a very important topic that needs to be tackled as well.
DR: You refer to yourself as a recovering academic. How long have you been reading about Bob Dylan, thinking about Bob Dylan, talking about Bob Dylan? How did that blend in with your academic career and beyond?
LT: I got into Bob Dylan when I was sixteen. The first song I fell in love with was “Every Grain of Sand,” which, I think, is not the usual gateway to Dylan. But I think, if that one gets you, you’re in. I started reading books about Bob Dylan pretty immediately, because I really loved reading biographies when I was younger. I was always interested in music. But the turning point with Dylan probably came when I started reading Paul Williams—his Performing Artist trilogy really changed the way that I thought about not just Dylan, but maybe even generally reframed how I think about art, how I think about music and performance. It was quite a formative read for me. I was always interested in music and language, and I studied Comparative Literature at university. I wrote my Bachelor’s dissertation on Dylan, and though I don’t think it was very good, it was my first time writing about Dylan, so it’s significant to me in hindsight, because I otherwise kept my academic work and my love for Dylan separate. I started doing a PhD on language philosophy, on Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, but eventually I decided to drop out. Afterwards, when I was trying to figure out what to do next, I had the idea of starting a radio show, because I wanted an outlet that would be both fun and creative, and it was immediately clear to me that it would have to be about Bob Dylan. That’s how Definitely Dylan was born. And I have to say, the moment I left academia and started writing about a topic I really loved, I feel like I found my voice. I like thinking critically about Bob Dylan’s music, but I intend for the show to be accessible for people who aren’t academics as well.
DR: Tell us more about Definitely Dylan. How did it begin and how has it evolved?
LT: Definitely Dylan is now also a podcast but it started out as a radio show in early 2018, at a London arts radio station that was crazy enough to take a chance on a weekly, one-hour show about Bob Dylan. From the beginning, I knew that I didn’t just want it to be a Bob Dylan jukebox, but that I wanted to talk about the songs and the performances as well. That’s why it was initially a radio show, because I wanted the audience to listen to the performances, and for the performances and the discussion to illuminate one another, hopefully. The idea was to take a small aspect of Dylan’s work and focus on that for an hour. For example, for the anniversary of the “Judas” incident, I dedicated an hour to the role of Judas in Dylan’s lyrics throughout his career. For one, I found it interesting that there’s enough there to fill an entire hour, but we can also trace how Dylan evolved as a songwriter through the years, and how he uses this biblical figure, whose name has somehow become entangled with Dylan’s own story, in his own songs. When you look at all this, it somehow puts the heckling incident from 1966 in context. I loved the freedom of those early radio episodes, but the weekly deadline was brutal, so now these episodes are more conversational. They’re co-hosted by my partner Robert, who’s a huge Dylan fan as well as a musician, so he picks up on a lot of details in the performance or the recording that a non-musician might not hear. Sometimes our conversations revolve around a theme, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes a theme emerges over the course of the episode.
These days I spend a lot of my time on the Definitely Dylan podcast, which began last year, when we were all in lockdown and Dylan released “Murder Most Foul.” The song came so out of left field, and I had some time on my hands, so I decided to finally make the jump to a podcast. These podcast episodes are deep dives, and I’m creating them in the hopes that they will find an audience that is willing to go that deep with me. This is quite liberating, because on the radio, I always felt like I had to keep things accessible for people who aren’t already huge Dylan fans, but now on the podcast, I can get as nerdy as I want. I started writing about “Murder Most Foul,” and then later, “I Contain Multitudes.” I have an ongoing series on Rough and Rowdy Ways, where I talk about the themes on the album. For example, in Chapter Two, I talk about themes of creation and creativity, particularly in “My Own Version of You” and “Mother of Muses.” I also did an episode on Shadow Kingdom that I’m really proud of. I enjoy the challenge of working on Dylan’s recent output, and it really is a challenge because you can’t just say, “Well, scholar X thinks this, scholar Y thinks that,” but instead, it’s uncharted territory, which allows me to present my own thoughts, which is so exciting. I think what I do is different in a few ways: I’m younger than the bulk of Dylan scholars, and I’m a woman, and I also work in a different medium, which allows for a new approach, and maybe finds a different audience, because the people who listen to podcasts might not be the same people who check Expecting Rain, or read Christopher Ricks, but they might listen to a podcast while they do the dishes. And I try to make these episodes sound as good as the podcasts I like to listen to, which usually have a big team of producers and editors and engineers. On Definitely Dylan, it’s just me. It’s a labor of love, although I started a Patreon this year, where people can support my work, and that really helps me out.
DR: How did you feel when you were asked to become a board member for the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies in Tulsa?
LT: I felt very honored because going to this Tulsa conference was exciting on so many levels, including getting to know the people that I had been reading for years, and to meet some of the people involved in the Bob Dylan Institute, and at the Bob Dylan Archive, and the Bob Dylan Center. It was very exciting that they apparently saw what I do, and heard what I have to say, and wanted to make my voice in some way part of what they’re doing.
DR: At the Dylan@80 virtual conference in May 2021, you led a panel called Twenty-First Century Dylan. So let me ask you a question you yourself posed: How do we talk about Dylan in the twenty-first century?
LT: I came up with the topic of the panel because I think it’s important to consider how we talk about Dylan in the twenty-first century, and to consciously be aware that things have changed since the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. There is now a new generation of fans that are talking about Dylan. To people who are now in their sixties, seventies, eighties, who grew up with and alongside Dylan, he was the artist who stood for the promise of the 60s, and they placed a lot of hope in him. Younger people might be aware of that, but they have their own associations. They might have first encountered him as the guy in the wacky wig in the “Must Be Santa” video, for instance. They can view the trajectory of his career in hindsight, and that can really help put things in perspective.
In the spirit of my 2019 presentation, I wanted to invite three speakers with perspectives that I felt were really interesting, different, and otherwise underrepresented. Ludovic Foster spoke about “Bob Dylan’s Queer Gesture,” Scott Warmuth presented some of his extraordinary findings in “Puzzles and Treasure Maps: Subtext Through Appropriation,” and Rebecca Slaman spoke about internet-native Dylan fandom in “Bob Nation: Twitter, Tweens, and Twinks.” In my introduction, I argued that what we need as part of Dylan studies in the twenty-first century are new perspectives, new media, and irreverence, and the speakers all reflected one or several of these. I already made my case for new perspectives, and new media is perhaps self-explanatory too, especially coming from a podcaster. To me, a more irreverent tone when talking about Dylan is the result of all of these. Bob Dylan is not a god, and he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal. For one, thinking of Bob Dylan only as “serious artist” and “Nobel laureate” is incredibly boring—I can’t even bring that together with how I think about his music. But also, great art is relatable because it’s created by flawed human beings, so let’s not take Bob Dylan nor ourselves too seriously, and rather enjoy the memes, silly Twitter threads, TikTok skits, and lighthearted podcasts. I think it’s good to continuously question how we approach Dylan and this work.
DR: Do you feel like there are enough diverse people working in new media platforms to keep Bob Dylan studies going and to make a difference?
LT: No, I don’t think there’s enough diversity yet, but I hope that’s about to change over time. There is no shortage of young Dylan fans. And because of social media, it’s easier than ever for them to find one another and to have conversations. They might not all be part of Dylan studies yet, but you know, neither was I when I was a teenager or my early twenties. I think it’s in part also up to us and to the more established Dylan outlets to invite those people in and to encourage them, and to ask their opinion, and if they do show interest, to create a welcoming space for them. Because they have a lot of things to say that we can learn from. Having Rebecca Slaman, who is in her early or mid-twenties as part of the panel at Dylan@80 not only meant that the older attendees learned about a culture that they were likely unaware of, it also attracted a few younger people to the conference, who felt represented by Rebecca. She’s an excellent writer, and I hope she will continue sharing her thoughts on Bob Dylan.
DR: What have you learned about yourself through the Definitely Dylan podcast?
LT: Oh, a ton! The reason why I’m so drawn to Bob Dylan as an artist is because I really believe that we can learn about life from art. We can see the world with somebody else’s eyes through their art, and therefore expand our own horizon. I mean, Bob Dylan, he’s an entire universe, right? And I think in addition to drawing inspiration from his songs themselves, I’ve also learned so much from Dylan’s approach to his art, and his approach to his performance. His career has now spanned six decades, and he has continuously kept challenging himself. In my Shadow Kingdom episode, I talk about “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which is a song that is very important to Dylan, I think. In the New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, he talks about the song and says something like, but even if you do paint your masterpiece, what will you do then? Well, you have to paint another masterpiece. So it becomes a never ending cycle, and this continuous creative pursuit, together with Dylan’s strong work ethic, is something I really admire. He’s a genius, but he’s also worked hard to get where he is today. I guess that is more an answer to the question, “What have you learned about yourself through being a Dylan fan?” but the answer to your question is really an extension of that. I find it really rewarding to spend time thinking about an artist that I find so inspiring.
But Definitely Dylan has also given me some confidence in my abilities as a writer. When I was doing my PhD and working on authors who have been written about so much, the imposter syndrome was inevitable. As I said, with Dylan, everything was just kind of effortless, and I was confident that I had some interesting things to say, even though Bob Dylan has also been written about a lot.
I have to say, too, I’m really grateful for the community of Dylan fans I’ve found, a lot of whom have become friends. We have a great monthly discussion group over Zoom with some of the Patreon members, and these conversations are always interesting and inspiring. I put a lot of myself into Definitely Dylan, so it means a lot to me that it resonates with the listeners.
DR: What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a British rather than US American Dylan scholar?
LT: Actually, I’m German. I’m based in the UK, but my native language is German. And, by the way, I basically learned English with the help of Bob Dylan and his lyrics. I mean, I learned English in school, but I really developed my passion for the language through Dylan’s work. For a while I was carrying around a little dictionary, and whenever I came across a word in Dylan’s lyrics I didn’t know, I looked it up. And if you have it in the context of a song, you will retain that word and its meaning. But apart from that, as someone who has lived in the UK for a while, I do think that the approach to Dylan in the UK is a bit different than in the US. I think there’s actually a lot of reverence for Dylan in the UK. I think he’s taken very seriously here, whereas in the US, I have the feeling that he’s, you know, just Bob, a part of the culture. I get the idea that British people sometimes see him as an artist first, and a cultural icon second, whereas maybe in the US it’s the other way round.
DR: You recently traveled from London to Washington, D.C. to catch Dylan in concert. What motivated your journey? How did it go?
LT: It was a spur of the moment decision. When the tour began, I had no plans to fly over, but hearing the recordings from those early shows, I had a really visceral response. Not only was Dylan sounding amazing, but he was playing all these new songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways, which I had spent so much time with since its release. Dylan’s music and my work for Definitely Dylan were a lifeline for me throughout the pandemic, and considering what we’d all been through, his return to the stage after a nearly two-year break felt monumental. So I realized that I wanted to attend one of these concerts, and I’m so glad I made that call, because it was such a wonderful experience. I did a whole podcast episode about it, about the performance and the setlist. I think I was also lucky that the show fell just into the time window before the Omicron variant made travel even more complicated.
DR: What haven’t we asked that we should be asking?
LT: How about, “What’s next for Definitely Dylan?” The problem is, that’s not an easy question to answer. I’m still working on my series on Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is almost done, I’m just waiting for a chance to sit down and finish it. As I said, the podcast episodes are very in-depth and sometimes it takes me months to create an episode, especially because this is not my main gig.
I have a long list of episodes, or even ideas for a whole series that I’m hoping to realize one day, and Bob Dylan also keeps putting out new stuff and going on tour, which means I can get sidetracked because I want to do an episode about something like Shadow Kingdom. I’m constantly inspired by lots of things, not just Bob Dylan, but other art, films, books, podcasts. I like creative storytelling, and I’d love to play with that more in the future. I won’t be running out of ideas anytime soon.