Enigmatic poet, musician examined in ‘The World of Bob Dylan’
By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
“The World of Bob Dylan“ edited by Sean Latham. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom ©2021. 351 p.
Beginning with the pivotal musical period of the Folk Era and the later emergence of rock, the mysterious figure of Bob Dylan has exerted an influence that can best be described as iconic. But despite many biographers, the man born as Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota remains largely unknown.
A new academic approach to Dylan hopes to correct that and offers scholars an opportunity to peel back some of the layers of the enigma who is part musician, poet, social commentator, religious zealot and a freshly minted Nobel Prize laureate.
“The World of Bob Dylan,” a series of 27 essays published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Sean Latham, is divided into five sections that codify and explore facets of Dylan’s life. The first section considers Dylan’s creativity and the next three delve into his musical, cultural and political contexts. The final section scrutinizes Dylan’s legacy and his star power.
While many biographies attempt to explain Dylan via his album releases, Keith Negus counters that his singles releases tell more about the musical story of the iconoclastic songwriter and his depth as a musician. “Dylan’s individual albums are characterized by an overall feel and ambience rather than a concept or a narrative,” he writes.
Like many other White Minnesotans of the 1950s, the young Robert Zimmerman’s first musical exposure was to rock and roll and rhythm and blues he heard over the radio, but he quickly gave that up when exposed to the burgeoning folk music movement that was rooted in words and expressions. Folk music with its heroes like Woody Guthrie and ethnic music such as that which came from Odetta made a great impression on the young Bob Dylan, who legally changed his name in 1960 to honor the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
His exposure to the legion of folk music fans in Greenwich Village is given careful analysis by Ronald D. Cohen, who documents his first encounters with well-known figures like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Peter Paul and Mary, but also lesser-known influences like Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis.
Greil Marcus explores the dark side of the blues that affected Dylan and traces the pain and suffering experienced in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Blacks were slaughtered in 1921 in a “White pogrom.” Tulsa is the site of the Bob Dylan Archive established by the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2016, a collection of more than 100,000 objects intended to serve as a basis for research into the singer and poet’s life for generations to come.
Gail Wald offers detailed critical analysis of Dylan’s influences from gospel sources, while Lee H. Edwards deals with country music and its influence on Dylan and his influence with country songs on albums like “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline.”
Dylan’s exposure to rock music began long before his infamous electric guitar set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Ira Wells informs us. The “sellout” to a creeping form of commercialism was what angered most fans, who were forced to choose between the avant garde and edgy Dylan and his approach to contemporary music versus Seeger’s “sugary middlebrow Norman Rockwell vision of America.” Wells goes into greater detail with Dylan’s trilogy of “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” establishing them as among the most important for “the emergent rock culture.”
Kim Ruehl examines Dylan and roots music with emphasis on his work with the musicians who would become known as The Band, especially the importance of “The Basement Tapes.” Ruehl adds into the mix the style that would be taken up by those that followed like Bruce Springsteen as well as Tom Petty and others like Jeff Lynne, who would form the basis of The Traveling Wilburys.
As is pointed out in one of the essays, when the Nobel Prize in literature was given to Dylan by the Swedish Academy, they cited him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It is not surprising, then, that Larry Starr finishes the musical context section of “The World of Bob Dylan” with the songwriter’s connection to “The Great American Songbook.”
Starr connects Dylan to crooners like Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Frank Sinatra. While it may be hard for some Sinatra fans to favorably compare their voices, Starr provides plenty of examples in his songbook albums to show their similarities in approaching ambience. There is a even a reference to Dylan having played at Ol’ Blue Eyes’ 80th birthday celebration, a fact which might surprise a Sinatra fan or two.
In Part III, under the Cultural Contexts sections, we find Florence Dore mulling over Dylan’s importance in American literature. In his Nobel Lecture acceptance speech, Dylan famously cited Herman Melville as one of his most influential sources, but Dore goes well beyond that linking him to British poet John Donne and Louisiana native son Huddie Ledbetter, better known to fans as Lead Belly. Dore claims Dylan’s Nobel Prize “confirms the deep overlap between American literature and rock and roll.”
Anne-Marie Mai broadens Dylan’s connection from American to world literature and refers back to Dylan’s Nobel Lecture, which starts out by paying homage to Buddy Holly before advancing to Lead Belly and then on to Melville. As Mai points out, he concludes by stressing that his songs may border on literature, but they must be sung, just as Shakespeare’s plays must be performed on a stage. His remarks never make a final determination, though, because, as Mai points out, he ends with a reference to the Greek storyteller Homer: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Steven Belletto considers Dylan and the Beat Generation, who had long abandoned New York by the time Dylan arrived on the scene. Damian A. Carpenter looks to Dylan’s influence on Theatre, while Raphael Falco addresses Dylan’s plunge into the art scene with his essay on “The Visual Arts.”
Kevin Dettmar briefly considers the concept of “borrowing,” a reference to plagiarism. But the plagiarism he is referring to is one of “lifting” emotion from songs such as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and translating them into works like “You’re Going to Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Dylan bristled when a Newsweek article in 1963 incorrectly accused him of plagiarizing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” although some critics have pointed to several deliberate falsehoods he created about himself that created an atmosphere of mistrust between him, the press and his biographers.
Of especial interest to CCJN readers is Elliot R. Wolfson’s chapter on “Judaism” subtitled “Saturnine Melancholy and Dylan’s Jewish Gnosis.” His relationship with Judaism is “complicated,” write Wolfson. But even when considering his Christian period, Wolfson suggests, his Jewish nature of questioning and searching for answers is still a strong motivation for the singer and poet. Wolfson notes Dylan’s connection to the ancient Hebrews and their Exodus from Egypt through Ethiopia and on to the judgment hall of Christ in the song “Precious Angel” on the “Slow Train Coming” album.
Wolfson links Dylan’s Jewishness with melancholia and suggests that Shabbatei Zissel (his Hebrew name) is still very much affected by Jewish references and concepts in the Bible. Wolfson employs a procession of song lyrics to prove his point. He concludes with a passage from “Long Time Gone”:
I know I ain’t no prophet
An’ I ain’t no prophet’s son
I’m just a long time a-comin’
And’ I’ll be a long time gone.
Andrew McCarron adds to Dylan’s aforementioned complicated religious makeup when he asserts that the singer has “never stopped being Christian” even when he stopped playing overtly Christian music and began attending Chabad Lubavitch events. McCarron explores additional concepts of salvation and the Apocalypse predicted in the New Testament and how Dylan’s music deals with them.
The last two sections contain the shortest essays in the collection. The Political Contexts essays are those on “Civil Rights” by Will Kaufmann, “The Counterculture” by Michael J. Kramer, “Gender and Sexuality” by Ann Powers (subtitled “Bob Dylan’s Body”) and “Justice” by Lisa O’Neill-Sanders.
The final section titled “Reception and Legacy” deals first with the “Bob Dylan Brand” by Devon Powers, then moves on to James English’s description of the background to “The Nobel Prize” and Dylan’s eventual acceptance of the prize. the final chapters feature David Shumway’s examination of Dylan’s celebrity in “Dylan: Stardom and Fandom” and concludes with Mark Davidson’s review of “The Bob Dylan Archive” and its importance now and for future researchers.
For more information go to www.cambridge.org.