David Monaghan (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Monaghan, David. “Taking Bob Dylan Seriously: The Wasteland Tradition.” English Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Summer 1973): 165-70.

[In the following essay, Monaghan asserts that the songs of Bob Dylan, while remaining at the center of popular culture, also belong within the tradition of twentieth-century literature. Monaghan analyses Dylan's song “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues,” noting that it bears the influence of T. S. Eliot’s poems.]


When you're lost in the rain in Juarez,
And it's Easter time too,
And your gravity fails
And negativity won't pull you through,
Don't put on any airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue,
They've got some hungry women there,
And they'll really make a mess out of you.
Now, if you see St. Annie,
Please tell her “Thanks a lot,”
I cannot move, my fingers are all in a knot.
I don't have the strength to get up
And take another shot,
And my best friend my doctor
Won't even say what it is I got.
Sweet Melinda,
The peasants call her the Goddess of Gloom,
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room.
And you're so kind and careful not to go to her too soon.
And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon.
Up on housing project hill,
It's either fortune or fame,
You must pick one or the other,
Though neither of them are to be what they claim.
If you're looking to get saved,
You'd better go back to from where you came,
Because the cops don't need you
And man they expect the same.
Now all the authorities,
They just stand around and boast,
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms,
Into leaving his post,
And picking up angel who just arrived here from the coast,
Who looked so fine at first,
But left looking just like a ghost.
I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff.
Everybody said they'd stand behind me,
When the game got rough,
But the joke was on me,
There was no-one there even to bluff.
I'm going back to New York City,
I do believe I've had enough.

In recent years literature teachers in search of relevance have flirted uncomfortably with popular literary forms. This flirtation has been so unsatisfactory because the works of Tom Wolfe, the Beatles and so on do not respond readily to the application of the kind of standards we adopt in dealing with more conventional literature. It is not the intention of this paper to resolve the problem of what a teacher is to do with popular culture, but rather to try to demonstrate that in at least one case, that of Bob Dylan, there is no problem. Despite his close affinities with popular culture Bob Dylan has produced songs which belong in the mainstream of Twentieth-Century literature, both thematically and technically. Dylan's work is greatly varied in quality and I will not attempt to produce on anthology of “respectable” Dylan. Instead, I will encourage others to engage in such a selective process by subjecting one song, “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues,” to a detailed analysis. I have chosen this song because, in that the world view it expresses and the methods by which it is composed seem to owe so much to T. S. Eliot, it fits very readily into the central tradition of modern poetry.

Bob Dylan usually fights shy of any literary associations, but he has admitted an awareness of the existence of T. S. Eliot,1 and it is likely that “Tom Thumb's Blues” draws directly...

(This entire section contains 2188 words.)

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on both “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” For example, Dylan not only chooses to filter his narration through the consciousness of apersona, as Eliot does in “Prufrock,” but he also creates in Tom Thumb a character who is remarkably similar to Prufrock, Eliot's near-definitive version of modern alienated man. Thus, the spiritual diminishment from which each protagonist suffers is reflected in his physical frailty. Dylan's persona is “Just Like Tom Thumb”2 and Prufrock's “arms and legs are thin.”3 Both find that their spiritual deficiencies lead to a general sense of anxiety and uncertainty which manifests itself most obviously in an inability to cope socially. Tom Thumb proves to be as inadequate in his dealings with St. Annie, Melinda, the doctor and the police as Prufrock is with the refined women who talk of Michelangelo. In neither case does an attempt to retreat behind the protective shield of polite behaviour prove successful. While Tom Thumb is left “howling at the moon” by Melinda despite being “so kind and careful not to go to her too soon,” Prufrock discovers that even within the confines of the genteel tea party he must inevitably end up “pinned and wriggling on the wall” (15). This inability to act decisively leads in each case to a sense of paralysis. Tom Thumb is literally paralysed by St. Annie and Prufrock projects his feelings into his description of the evening as “a patient etherised upon a table” (13).

Bob Dylan also uses imagery very similar to that employed by Eliot at the beginning of “The Wasteland” to establish the essentially dead and sterile nature of his world. Just as Eliot's April showers fail to bring new spiritual life, so Tom Thumb's existence is characterised by “negativity” rather than nativity even though it is raining and “Easter time.” The narrator of “The Wasteland” is consequently left in a lifeless environment where “The dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief / and the dry stone no sound of water” (63) and Tom Thumb finds himself on “Rue Morgue Avenue.” The sense of death conveyed by the name of the street is intensified by the obvious reference to Poe's “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Moreover, while Bob Dylan does not describe Juarez, the very use of the Mexican place-name evokes a desert-like picture very similar to that conveyed by Eliot's depiction of the wasteland.

Although there are no more specific parallels between “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” and “The Wasteland” because Bob Dylan limits his subject matter to the town of Juarez while Eliot ranges over the whole of Western and occasionally Eastern history and literature, both continue to employ their symbolism towards similar ends. The main point of Eliot's references to The Tempest, the grail myth, Tiresias, etc., is to demonstrate the various ways in which the present is inferior to the past. Similarly, Dylan utilises religious imagery to show how the faults of the modern world have served to debase traditional spiritual values. Thus, the first part of his song is based on the fact that in all religions female objects of worship have been defined in sexual terms—either as earth mothers like Demeter and Isis or virgins like Mary, the mother of Christ. The Saints and Goddesses of Dylan's world retain this sexuality, but it has been perverted into prostitution and has thus lost its sacred life-producing function. Since female sexuality is now directed towards purely economic ends, the male is inevitably also prevented from playing his part in the act of procreation. Instead of enabling Tom Thumb to fulfill himself, St. Annie, named ironically after the mother of the Virgin Mary, almost paralyses him: “Now if you see St. Annie / Please tell her ‘Thanks a lot’, / I cannot move, my fingers are all in a knot. / I don't even have the strength to get up / And take another shot.” Literally, of course, she has given him venereal disease for which he is undergoing a course of penicillin injections. However, symbolically, she has deprived him of his spiritual wholeness. Tom Thumb's paralysis is thus, as mentioned before, akin to that from which Prufrock suffers. It is because of the spiritual nature of Tom Thumb's malaise that the doctor, whom one might expect to be capable of diagnosing venereal disease, is unable to explain what is wrong with him.5 The goddess Melinda, whose name is also ironic since it means “gentle,”6 similarly corrupts the sexual act by utilising it as a means of making a profit. This time Tom Thumb is completely deprived of his humanity and is reduced to the level of a dog “howling at the moon.”

Having concluded his examination of the effects of the profit ethic on sexual relationships, Dylan turns in the fourth verse to the subject of governmental corruption. Again, he asserts that modern society has been tainted by a basic selfishness and lack of concern for others that is destructive of spiritual values. Thus, Tom Thumb is painfully aware that he cannot look towards the self-seeking police for salvation: “If you're looking to get saved / You'd better go back to from where you came / Because the cops don't need you / And man they expect the same.” Similarly the blackmailing authorities are responsible for destroying the angel who “looked so fine at first / But left looking just like a ghost.”

Such a society offers little hope of salvation and the modern Calvary is, appropriately enough, “housing project hill” where, rather than being poised between heaven and hell, the individual is offered only a choice between the worldly goals of fortune and fame “neither of which are to be what they claim.” Consequently, when Tom Thumb says “If you're looking to get saved / You'd better go back to from where you came,” he is not suggesting that salvation can be achieved simply by leaving Juarez and returning to New York City.7 Rather, he is calling on modern man to turn away from this world entirely and to seek the spiritual values that are to be found by looking into the past. Although Bob Dylan has gradually come to believe in the existence of a benevolent God,8 at this stage in his development he was incapable of suggesting how this necessary temporal movement might be made. Thus, having been forced by the pressure of life to exchange his “burgundy,” which is clearly emblematic of the sacramental wine, for “the harder stuff,” Tom Thumb is finally left in a condition of total disorientation: “Everyone said they'd stand behind me / When the game got rough, / But the joke was on me / There was no-one there even to bluff.” The only choice left open to him is to return to New York City, which is at least a familiar hell.

The seriousness of Bob Dylan's concern with the spiritual crisis of this century and the skill with which he presents his persona and employs his symbolism merits “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” a place in the line of distinguished “wasteland” poems that stretches from “The Wasteland” itself through “The Bridge” and “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to “Paterson.” Therefore, even those teachers who are most cautious of dabbling in popular literature need feel no qualms about teaching Bob Dylan in their modern literature courses. Indeed, in that he is a writer with whom even the most anti-intellectual students feel an affinity, he could profitably be used not only as an important figure in his own right but as a bridge between popular and so-called respectable literature.


  1. In “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 Revisited, side 2, band 4, Bob Dylan refers rather disparagingly to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot “fighting in the captain's tower,” presumably for the right to be termed the greatest modern poet.

  2. “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues,” Highway 61 Revisited, side 2, band 3.

  3. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in Collected Poems, 1909-1962, by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1963), p. 14. All subsequent references to Eliot's works are included in the text of my essay.

  4. Although this is the most likely direct source for Dylan's use of the name of his first prostitute, the name Anne or Anna has a number of connotations which would aptly supply the ironic note that is clearly intended here. Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Symbols (New York, 1962), I, 99-100, points out that in Greek the name means “grace,” and in Chaldean, “heaven;” that Anna in the New Testament is a prophetess known for her piety; and that Anna Perenna is the Roman Goddess of Springtime.

  5. As in “Tombstone Blues,” Highway 61 Revisited, side 1, band 2, and “Desolation Row,” Dylan employs the doctor figure in this song as the archetype of the modern scientist, the man who has replaced the mystic as the voice of authority in a world concerned only with the pursuit of factual knowledge. Tom Thumb can expect no help from this modern shaman in trying to fill his spiritual void.

  6. Flora Haines Loughead, Dictionary of Given Names (Glendale, California, 1966), p. 191.

  7. Any temptation to accept New York City as a valid alternative to Juarez is dispelled by an earlier song “Talking New York,” in which Bob Dylan paints a bleak picture of his first experiences in this city.

  8. In “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” John Wesley Harding, Columbia 63252, side 1, band 3, Dylan admits for the first time that salvation is possible although he does not feel himself to be worthy of it. In a later song “Father of Night,” New Morning, Columbia KC30290, side 2, band 6, he seems to be completely free of doubts and celebrates the all-pervading goodness of God.


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Bob Dylan 1941-

(born Robert Allen Zimmerman) American singer, songwriter, and musician.

The most influential singer-songwriter of his era, Bob Dylan demonstrated that rock and roll lyrics, once known for their lightheartedness, could be rich, serious, and meaningful. Combining forms borrowed from folk ballad verse, blues, country and western, and gospel music and techniques gained from French symbolists and beat poets, Dylan revitalized the popular song and inspired other musicians to follow his lead in self-expression. Songs such as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” endeared him to antiwar demonstrators and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was commonly referred to as the spokesman for his generation, a title he disavowed. As Dylan restlessly ventured from folk music to electrically amplified rock music to country music to gospel to blues to bluegrass, his audiences followed. In the course of a career that began professionally in 1961, Dylan has written more than three hundred songs, released more than forty albums, and performed live in more than two thousand concerts. Among his most celebrated songs are “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Subterranean Blues,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” Dylan has garnered widespread praise for the literary merit of his lyrical compositions; his merits as a poet have been repeatedly compared to the likes of such literary giants as Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Dylan has received numerous honors and awards, including an Academy Award, and was named by Life magazine as one of the one hundred most important Americans of the 20th century.

Biographical Information

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941, into a Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota. His father was co-owner of Zimmerman Furniture and Appliance Co. In 1947, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan started writing poetry at age ten and taught himself the guitar at age fourteen. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Little Richard, Dylan formed several bands in high school, one called the Golden Chords, which played country music and rhythm and blues. Dylan won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in 1959, and was introduced to Bound for Glory, the autobiography of Woody Guthrie. Dylan was greatly affected by the book and soon learned dozens of Guthrie's songs. He performed many of them at local coffeehouses, appearing for the first time under the adopted name Bob Dylan (legally changed in 1962.) His renditions of folk songs were charged with the influence of his rock and roll background. After some months in Madison, Wisconsin, and later in Chicago, Dylan borrowed a ride to New York at the end of 1960. He played folk music in clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and visited the ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital. As an opening act Dylan received an ecstatic review from The New York Times. The next day, at a studio session as a harmonica player, he was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond. Although his debut album Bob Dylan (1962), sold a respectable 5000 copies, his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), gained him cult status because it included “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin' in the Wind.” Peter, Paul and Mary's cover of “Blowin' in the Wind” was phenomenally successful and popularized the socially aware folk song. Dylan became the favorite of the counterculture movement and gave them eloquent voice and an anthem with the title song of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964). Dylan was quickly overwhelmed by his political status and turned inward with Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). In one of its songs, “My Back Pages,” Dylan signals a break from his past: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now.” Dylan further broke from folk purists and political activists when he performed a loud, electrically amplified set of new compositions at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Although he lost some of his fans in the transition, he gained many more and in the same year had a hit single with “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him a pop superstar. Exhausted from international concert tours and the pressures of stardom, Dylan used a motorcycle accident in 1966 as an excuse to step back from his career. Although he continued to write and record new material, he would perform in public only a few times until 1974, when he held a record-shattering comeback tour. At the end of the year he recorded what is considered one of his finest albums, Blood on the Tracks (1975), followed by the chart-topping Desire (1976). Dylan's conversion to Christianity brought more controversy in 1979. Many fans were outraged that Dylan refused to perform any of his classic songs written before his religious conversion and became even more offended by his on-stage proselytizing, but he had another hit single with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won him a Grammy Award in 1980. Dylan began performing his earlier classics again by the end of the year. In 1982 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Also in the early 1980s, Dylan converted from Christianity to Hasidic Judaism. In 1988 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, with fellow music stars George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, formed a group called the Traveling Wilburys; their debut album delighted both critics and the public. Dylan accepted a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1993 he sang “Chimes of Freedom” as part of President Clinton's inaugural celebration. In 1997 he performed for Pope John Paul II in Italy. Time Out of Mind (1997) received rave reviews and earned him three Grammy awards for Album of the Year, Male Rock Performance, and Contemporary Folk Album. Later that year Dylan was presented by the President with the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001 Dylan received an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed,” written for the film Wonder Boys. His latest album, “Love and Theft” (2001) received a rare five-star, immediate classic, rating from Rolling Stone magazine.

Major Works

Bob Dylan includes only two Dylan originals, one of which, “Song to Woody,” demonstrates the influence of his one-time idol. His second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan contains only two songs which are not Dylan originals, and includes such protest songs as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” which capture the mood and spirit of the counterculture of the early 1960s, as well as “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,” which remains one of his most popular songs of lost love. His third album, The Times They Are A-Changin', also contains many classic folk-protest and socially-conscious songs hailed as masterpieces, including “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “With God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The liner notes showcase his first widely circulated poetry, “11 Outlined Epitaphs.” The title of his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, indicates his shift from political to more personal lyrics. This turning inward produced songs that demonstrate the influence of beat poetry and psychedelic drugs. “Chimes of Freedom” expresses his spiritual side, which eventually earned him the label of visionary. The first half of his next album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), surprised everyone with its electric guitars. Again the songs express social and political alienation rather than activism. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” voices distrust of authority and sees convention as stifling and oppressive to the individual. “Maggie's Farm” expresses the impulse to “drop out” of the workaday world with the assertion, “I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more.” “It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding),” which was included on the soundtrack to the quintessential counterculture film Easy Rider (1969), further expresses the cruelty of mainstream society. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” one of his most enduring songs, expresses the sense of freedom and joy which comes from renouncing social mores in favor of creativity and artistic release. In the liner notes Dylan offers an explanation of himself and his work: “my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion / divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes / subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness-seen at times thru dark sunglasses an other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself / i am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person... some people say that i am a poet.”

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) solidified his transition from political folksinger to alienated rock musician, still critical of society but without any specific political agenda. The double album Blonde on Blonde (1966), often considered his finest work, contains mostly songs of love or of the bitterness of failed relationships, including the hit “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.” The Biblically-inspired John Wesley Harding (1968), Dylan's first album of new songs to be released after his motorcycle accident, returns to acoustic material. Quiet and thoughtful, the album is widely considered a response to the excesses of rock music as typified by the Beatles with their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band release. Dylan's next two albums were heavily influenced by country music: Nashville Skyline (1969), which includes a duet with Johnny Cash, and Self Portrait (1970), a double album, largely consisting of covers, which was panned by critics. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971) started a trend in the music industry with its inclusion of several previously unreleased songs. Dylan wrote the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah's western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and accepted a bit role in the movie. Also in that year Dylan released Writings and Drawings; he had never included the lyrics to his songs in his albums and thus this large hardback book containing all of his published songs and many unpublished ones was met with great acclaim and became a bestseller. (It was updated in 1985 with the publication of Lyrics, 1962-1985.) Planet Waves (1974) was released in conjunction with Dylan's highly anticipated return to touring across America, a tour represented by the double album Before the Flood (1974). Blood on the Tracks is widely considered his best or second best album. Its impact on listeners was indicated by Rolling Stone's devotion of their entire record review section to this one album, with numerous essayists expressing their individual assessments. The same magazine awarded it album of the year, tied with another album of the year, also by Dylan, The Basement Tapes. Although The Basement Tapes was not released until 1975, it dates from 1967 when he was recuperating. Desire includes, as Allen Ginsberg states in the liner notes, “songs of redemption,” and remains Dylan's biggest seller upon initial release, at some two million copies. Street Legal (1978) was released during his return to world touring and featured a saxophone player and three female backing vocalists. The three albums of Dylan's Christian phase include Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). Infidels (1983) continues with expressions of faith in God, although more subtly and with the influence of Hasidic Judaism, then favored by Dylan.

Biograph is a five-LP or 3-CD box set containing not only dozens of his greatest hits but a dozen and a half previously uncirculated works from recording studios and concert halls. It spawned dozens of similar sets by other artists. After the seemingly career-capping release of Biograph, Dylan faltered with Knocked Out Loaded (1986), generally considered one of his weakest efforts and Down in the Groove (1988). Although The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One (1988) and Oh Mercy (1989) were viewed as returns to fine form, the release of Under the Red Sky (1990) and the follow-up Wilburys album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990) showed a drifting and disengaged Dylan. The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991) was comprised of 3 CDs of previously unheard songs and performances, but with its necessary emphasis on the past, some critics were eager to interpret it as evidence of Dylan being a has-been. The following years gave more fodder to Dylan's detractors. Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) were solo acoustic albums of mostly traditional songs, with no Dylan originals, and neither Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994) or MTV Unplugged (1995), gathered from two live performances, could take the place of new, original material. Not until 1997 with the release of Time Out of Mind, were fans treated to an album of all new songs. 1998 saw the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966, a 2-CD recording of a legendary performance in England, often considered the finest rock concert ever given by any artist. “Love and Theft” continued to build Dylan's reputation as a vital, creative force in popular music.

Critical Reception

As early as 1965 media critics were acknowledging Dylan's status not only as a popular music star but as a poet of substantial literary merit. Dylan has generally treated his critics with derision, stating that they do not understand what he is trying to express. Dylan has always confounded reviewers by refusing to explain the meaning of his songs, however, insisting that they stand for themselves. Because many of his songs hold up well as poetry, separated from their music, they are natural choices for study by critics specializing in contemporary language arts, who compare them to the works of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg himself proclaimed Dylan to be among the greatest poets of the century. Dylan usually avoids discussion of his works as poems or talk of himself as anything but a performing songwriter: “Poets drown in lakes,” he told Paul Zollo in a 1991 interview. Zollo explains that Dylan “broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.” Such well-crafted songs include “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” which are examined for their visionary symbolism and imagery. “Like a Rolling Stone” is praised for its lyrical qualities and the emotional force of the repeated refrain, “How does it feel?” and its powerful expression of alienation. “Desolation Row” which portrays a dark, apocalyptic vision of the fate of human society, is another favorite of critics. Dylan's work fell below his own classic standard during parts of the 1980s and 1990s. Not until Time Out of Mind did critics once again overwhelmingly praise Dylan's lyrics as startlingly fresh compositions, equal to his most critically acclaimed songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Music writer Bill Flanagan was present at a party held in 1985 to honor Dylan's accomplishments. When television reporters asked him to explain Dylan's significance, he explained that Dylan refused to accept any limits on rock and roll and thus showed everyone else that the form could expand to include all sorts of ideas. Flanagan relates a conversation he had with musician Pete Townshend, who also attended the party. “He joked about the futility of trying to offer a concise explanation of Dylan's significance. ‘They asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me,’ he said. ‘That's like asking how I was influenced by being born.’” Dylan's popular base continues to increase as he performs worldwide in live concerts more than one hundred times per year.

Thomas S. Johnson (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: Johnson, Thomas S. “Desolation Row Revisited: Bob Dylan's Rock Poetry.” Southwest Review 62, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 135-47.

[In the following essay, Johnson analyzes several of Dylan's mid-career songs in an attempt to understand his motivations for moving away from the folk-protest idiom and into rock music.]

What was Bob Dylan doing when he moved into rock music in mid-career? His first albums were in a folk-protest idiom. His later albums tended to return to a folk-country idiom close to his first albums. But the latter were markedly different because of three central albums that intervened: Bringing It All Back Home;Highway 61 Revisited; and Blonde on Blonde. Perhaps now, knowing where his music went, we can begin to look back and try to understand what were the underlying motives for that excursion. There are certain songs on these three albums that stand out from the rest as highly individualistic even within Dylan's own canon. They establish a continuity and developing attitude that seems to underlie Dylan's work in this period, an attitude which proved untenable and which finally forced him out of rock altogether.

The common interpretation of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is that it describes a drug high, the Tambourine Man being the dealer, his song being a hint of the visions he will give the poet through drugs. The imagery of the song would tend to back this up. In the first verse the poet states his readiness to begin to trip out. In the second verse the actual high begins to take effect: the singer's hands and feet grow numb and “lose their grip,” and he loses his hold on reality. In the third verse he is “laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun,” and in the fourth verse he travels down through his mind, seeing the various things buried deep beneath the “waves” of his subconscious. Such specific imagery can be compounded and the song becomes simply the description of a drug high, but this does not explain everything in the lyric. The chorus and first verse, for example, do not mention drugs or use extensive drug imagery. The third verse does not seem to contain explicit drug references. Throughout the song there is imagery referring to music and dancing and singing. In both verse one and verse three another obvious mood is that of wandering, searching. The entire song is operating in the imperative form of the verb: the poet asks the Tambourine Man to play his song, he demands “take me on a trip”—he is ready to go, and in the second verse he promises to go. In the last verse he says “take me disappearing,” and “let me forget about today.” The song ends with the repetition of the chorus, which is quite clearly calling on the Tambourine Man to play him a song, which he will follow, the spell of which he will go under. The plaintive tone in which Dylan sang the song in its original release makes the imperative tone all the more forceful. But the singer himself never has his wish granted. He never joins the Tambourine Man, nor does he ever hear the song fully; he only imitates it in a way he tells the Tambourine Man to ignore, his imitation being aimless, he only a chaser of shadows. This point of view of the singer in relation to the Tambourine Man is the key to the song. The imagery points to the feelings evoked by the singer's realization of his place and its implications and consequences for him.

Dylan begins the song, and presents his basic attitude, in the chorus. He is awake, waiting for somewhere to go. The first verse specifies his position—“evening's empire” has turned to sand that has slipped through his fingers, and he is blind, weary, stranded, alone on an empty street “too dead for dreaming.” Evening's empire is the realm of dreams. He says farther on that he is unable to sleep and cannot dream because the street is too dead, and he is, according to the chorus, waiting for a dawning. The singer is emotionally empty. He cannot “dream,” i.e., create his own visions. These dreams are like sand that has slipped away leaving him trapped on a “dead” street. The old values, idioms, visions are no good, and he needs new ones his past experience cannot provide—he needs the inspiration of the new song, or vision, of the Tambourine Man, which he pleads for in the chorus.

In the second verse he points out his readiness to begin his trip, to fade “into my own parade.” On the one hand this implies fading into his own mind, his own world. He also recognizes that what he needs is an idiom of his own, a “parade” moving down his own road, to replace the dead form he has worked in. Again the chorus, and he calls on the Tambourine Man for inspiration, to help him find his way.

The narrative point of view then shifts from the first person to an ironic second person. The point of view becomes that of the Tambourine Man as the poet conceives of him, and the third verse considers what the Tambourine Man must think of this poet and his songs. The poet is a “ragged clown” rolling off “skipping reels of rime” to the tempo of the tambourine. But his rime is not “aimed at anyone”—it's simply “escaping on the run.” It is without direction, and if he were the Tambourine Man, he “wouldn't pay it any mind” because the poet is only capable of chasing shadowy things which the Tambourine Man alone sees clearly. The poet follows the Tambourine Man realizing he will miss the substance of the vision and seem absurd to the Tambourine Man's objective eye. But he is willing to seem so for the sake of the inspiration he hopes to realize, and he interrupts this line of narrative to make his choric plea again.

The singer then looks into himself to find what he will see, given the inspiration of the Tambourine Man. He wishes to delve into his mind to escape his consciousness and his subconscious fears, the “haunted frightened trees,” the “foggy ruins of time,” and the world he lives in, to realize a fresh elemental vision, represented by the setting of sea, sand, and sky. On the beach, confronting the sea, the primordial element of nature, he would drown memory, time, fate and its consequences, and experience a pure poetic vision (“dance beneath the diamond sky”). Then he would be able to forget about the present and his frozen loneliness until a tomorrow which will never come, since time will have been buried. The dawning of a new vision of the world will resolve his present emptiness. But the chorus interrupts again, and again the plaintive plea is made. He has not been granted the vision and inspiration he has sought. He never goes on the trip with the Tambourine Man.

The poet is on a street “too dead for dreaming.” But with no dreaming there can be no new vision. There is no one on the street to lead him, and so he called on the Tambourine Man to help him. But the Tambourine Man exists in another world and either cannot or will not help him, and the poet on his own cannot make the leap into that world. Thus the cry at the end of the song is a cry of futility. He is left alone, cut off from the world he lives in and the world of the Tambourine Man—as Arnold put it, stranded between two worlds, one dead, the other waiting to be born.

And so what is he to do now? He chooses to take a closer look around, both at the street and at the world just off of the street. The results are not edifying, for the remainder of this album and much of the next detail a catalog of grotesquery and nightmares almost unparalleled in contemporary poetry. A good example of this, and perhaps Dylan's most powerful single lyric, is “Desolation Row” on the Highway 61 Revisited album. “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues,” preceding “Desolation Row” on that album, presents several motifs he will use later.

The first verse of “Tom Thumb's Blues” says: “Well you're lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's Eastertime too, / And your gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through. / Don't put on any airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue, / They've got some hungry women there, and they really make a mess out of you.” It is Easter, and it is raining, two standard symbols of redemption and the rejuvenation of life, but they bring no relief to someone lost in negativity, without energy or inspiration, on a “dead street” (the “ancient empty street too dead for dreaming”) of prostitutes. It is no place for airs, for trappings of superiority. Everyone is equally exposed in a whorehouse.

The song reviews a series of prostitutes, their activities and histories, and the poet's own life, leaving the listener to come to “Desolation Row” seeing the individual lost in the chaos of a world full of grotesques. Negativity, the refusal to accept any positive values or to capitulate to his situation, is the only power he has, and it's not enough to survive on. The world for him is stripped of any pleasant accouterments, and naked reality is exposed. With this rather bleak view of things, Dylan shows us the world around his dead and empty street, now called Desolation Row.

In “Desolation Row” Dylan turns his back on drug visions and visionary hopes to face reality as he sees it, and he sees the world in the aspect of a carnival, specifically a freak show, with all the grotesques on prominent display. The lyric tells of the parade of grotesques that pass before the poet, a stream of images generated by a letter full of gossip he has just received from an old acquaintance.

The opening is primarily an impressionistic panoramic overview of the world around his street, setting the scene for the specific and deeper probings to follow. The first three phrases present three spot images, one of them grotesque postcards of a hanged man, reminiscent of the hanged god of The Waste Land, another failed symbol of fertility and redemption. The fourth phrase gives us the setting of the lyric: “The circus is in town.” The blind Commissioner (probably of police) parades by in an autoerotic trance, following a tightrope walker, a man skilled at keeping himself in balance. It is evident he needs this skill, as the Commissioner's riot squad is restless, and the tightrope walker is seeing that they are not unleashed by controlling the controller of the town. The last line sets up Dylan's position as the observer of all this, looking out over the activity, and it is his consciousness that will provide the center and ordering point for the chaos to follow.

There are two important women on the Row, Cinderella and Ophelia. Cinderella is a prostitute, confronting Romeo, the idealistic lover, who is told to leave. On this street there is no place for such a ridiculous adolescent. An ambulance carries away the dead Romeo, leaving Cinderella to her perennial task of sweeping up. There will be no Prince Charming here. Ophelia is just the opposite of Cinderella, a professional virgin. Although only twenty-two, she is already an old maid because she has sacrificed love and affection for her career, armored herself, and become one of the iron maidens of modern business. The iron vest she wears is a likely metaphor for the way she has armored her mind and body against love and sexuality.

Science and medicine fare about as well as sentimental love and affection here. Albert Einstein, the symbol of modern science and technology, is presented in the guise of Robin Hood, perhaps representing his symbolic position today as the bringer of the riches (and horrors) of modern living to the everyday man. For Dylan, all he can ultimately do is bum cigarettes, sniff drainpipes, recite the alphabet—absurd activities. Science and technology and all they involve, represented in this man, have become a meaningless and occasionally grotesque parody of humanity. Einstein once played the violin, a creative human expression, but that was long ago, and he escaped humanity in science. Technology offers as false a hope as Ophelia's rainbow. Einstein is now only a parody of what he once was.

Dr. Filth is a figure I can't pin down specifically. Since verse six echoes the drug imagery of “Tambourine Man,” he could be a physician who sells prescriptions for drugs. His nurse's cyanide hold would be the doctor's own stash from which he sells direct. But in this role he is as useless as anyone else on the Row. The drugs offer no more hope than the rainbows.

There is no hope even in the stars. The third verse, the first “Eliotesque” verse, so called because of allusions to The Waste Land in the figure of the fortune-teller, the mechanical lovemaking, and the motif of waiting for rain, begins with the blacking out of the stars and moon, standard symbols of romance and the aspirations of men. The fortune-teller has given up the ghost and gone inside—there is no fortune to tell without the stars. The only ones left who aren't waiting for release from their lives are Cain and Abel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the first an image of death and hate where there should be love, the second an image of ignorant and deformed love. The Good Samaritan is also dressing for the show—he too is now a freak, to go on display in the modern carnival freak show.

And so the stage is set for the presentation in verse seven of the main show of the carnival. The central figure is Casanova, standard representative of sexual energy, and the occasion is his punishment. His crime? Not his dissolute life, which in its essential sterility is in keeping with modern life, but rather his trip to Desolation Row. Casanova has been to the Row and as a result has lost his assurance, his potency. On Desolation Row he has experienced the nothingness of his life—the end of the road, the absolute nihilism, the knowledge of his irrelevance, which comes when he must face the fact of his own ultimate impotence. The result of this experience is that he must be spoon-fed if his illusions are to be revived and he is to become again one of the carnival's proper functionaries. He is not being killed and poisoned literally; rather his experience on Desolation Row, where he lost his self-confidence, must be purged by means of false self-confidence and the superficiality of words. This, to Dylan, is as good as death, because the loss of assurance is implicitly the beginning of true insight. Casanova has been dragged off of the Row (“across the street”) to receive his punishment. The difference between the grotesques over there and those on the Row is simply that those on the Row are aware of what they are, where the others are not.

As the show goes on, Dylan widens his focus to include the backdrop for all these activities. The larger world is not pleasant looking. Verse eight is a Kafkaesque verse, with its dominating image of the castles. It is midnight, but instead of witches and werewolves, it is the agents, crew, and insurance men from the castles who sweep down to scour the land (perhaps from Housing Project Hill in “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues”). Their prey is anyone who rises above the common lot, anyone who has greater knowledge than they. The exceptional man is saddled with an impossible load which leads to a heart attack, modern business of whatever sort being an environment that will kill superior individuals. If they are not killed by these heart attack machines, they will evidently be burned out; their lives will be sacrificed. The agents also go to seal off Desolation Row. For anyone to be able to escape there and experience its negativity would be a threat to their rule. Realizing the ultimate uselessness of their society, these escapees would become its enemies.

Carnival imagery is now of less importance. The song has expanded in its significance by positing a dark and mysterious power at the center of the world, the castles. What these castles are is not explicit, as was also true in the Kafka novel. The important thing is that they exist out there and threaten all aspects of contemporary life.

One escape route is posited by Dylan, however—the Titanic. In verse nine, the Titanic is to sail at dawn. In “Tambourine Man” dawn and the ship were to bring a new vision. Here they bring death and destruction to one of man's great creations. From this point on this can be seen as the second “Eliotesque” verse, with specific references to Eliot and Pound and to the calling mermaids of “Prufrock.” The central image again refers to the dissolution of the poet's idiom or inspiration. One of Dylan's major influences is the poetry of these two men, but they are doomed without even realizing it, so caught up are they in their own petty arguments. With the sinking of the Titanic comes the death of the meaningfulness of Eliot's and Pound's poetic idiom. Fishermen and calypso singers laugh at the two men for their irrelevance to real life. But ironically these figures are themselves irrelevant. They have no answer to give to the doomed men; they only laugh and mock. They live in a world of mermaids by the sea, an enticing solution for Eliot to the problems of his world, but one which he rejected. Here the solution is absurd in the context of the poem. All of these people have ignored, in fact never really recognize, Desolation Row, and therefore are destined to irrelevance forever. This verse is followed by a long harmonica interlude, indicating a break in the process of the poem and a preparation for a new orientation in the last verse.

Dylan finally addresses himself to a person who has just written him. This person has evidently included the usual banalities of personal letters: inquiries as to health, news and gossip of various people, etc. To Dylan, all of this is “quite lame”—he has to rearrange everything to understand what the writer was talking about. The people we have just seen on the Row are his rearrangements of the persons referred to in the letter. And why has he had to do this? He has been to Desolation Row, in fact he is still there, and he has little in common with people who have not experienced the place. For him, the only people who can say anything are those who have the courage to step onto Desolation Row and experience an absolute nihilism.

Since he was forced to give up the dream of the Tambourine Man, Dylan has forced himself to see the place where he stands for what it is, has moved toward the nadir point of his existence where old values, institutions, and aspirations are obliterated or distorted in an absolute negativity. He is surviving. The experience of all this is recounted in “Desolation Row,” and this experience he has resolved into a tremendously powerful lyric. But he is not yet free. The experience has not been weighed, balanced, judged. Indeed it seems as though, given the poet's detached place in the song, it has not even been fully absorbed yet. It remains to be seen at this point whether he will find any resolution. He takes up this problem in “Visions of Johanna.”

“Visions of Johanna” is probably Dylan's most difficult lyric, made up of a series of highly personal and shifting images and references. It is also filled with sexual and drug imagery, important vehicles in establishing the theme and motif of the song, the only song on the Blonde on Blonde album that uses this imagery in such concentration and profusion.

The motif of the song is the unstructured stream-of-consciousness thoughts of a young man (the poet) sitting in a room with a girl named Louise and her lover. The basic theme of the lyric would seem to be the poet's feelings of being abandoned, left alone to face the Visions of Johanna. The definition of these Visions is developed slowly through the poem. They are not the inspiration Dylan has been seeking since “Tambourine Man,” for the world of this song is a bizarre one derived directly from “Desolation Row,” even to the position of the poet in a room above a street of grotesques. They are visions of love prostituted, and of the negation of life and vitality this prostitution implies, all of which contrasts violently with an idealized love the poet recognizes he cannot have. The conflict throughout the lyric between visions of negation and of an idealized love lost and prostituted sets up a tension that leads to the final dissolution of the song. The ideal and the real are irreconcilable, and end by destroying each other.

This duality in “Visions of Johanna” is the result of the combination of two image patterns that have developed in previous songs. The idealized vision of the Tambourine Man, the poet's vision of an energizing relationship, is now conceived of in terms of a lost love relationship. The visions of the nihilism of life in “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” and “Desolation Row,” also included here, imply the complete breakdown of the poet's world and by implication of his own mind.

The first verse again sets the scene of the lyric. It is night, and three people are sitting in a loft “stranded,” though they won't admit it. Heat pipes cough, lights flicker, and a country music station plays softly, but “there's nothing, really nothing to turn off.” This all conveys the feeling of nothingness and impotence that will dominate the lyric. There is literally nothing going on; they are all static. The handful of rain is a drug image, tempting the young man perhaps to a pleasant narcotic dream existence. It is also a standard literary symbol of redemption and fertility. Evidently it fails in its objectives, as the world it presents is totally grotesque.

Out on the street there are only whores. A night watchman passing by asks himself just who is normal and who abnormal here. The answer is ambiguous. Louise, through all this, remains quite calm, but makes it clear that the Visions of Johanna, here the vision of idealized love, are not to be found in this place. Looking back at her, the young man sees that her face is ravaged despite her calm, ethereal pose. Ghosts of electricity (heavy jagged wrinkles) “howl” in the bones of her face, and the only reality she recognizes is prostituted love, something the young man is also coming to recognize.

The grotesque situation is developed through the third verse. The final lines of the verse are a blatant outcry about the impossibility of explaining just what the poet feels, an admission that what he is talking about here is more than his relationship with one woman. Where the first three verses could be seen as a tirade against women, Dylan at this point explicitly says that there's more going on here than he can explain in simple words. He is trying to present what it feels like to live in a situation where love is dead and the world is totally nihilistic, and he is trying to find some way out of the whole situation. The rest of the song expands this theme.

The scene suddenly shifts to a museum, a place where old things are kept, where Infinity, all time (“the foggy ruins of time”), is on trial. The eternal values and verities no longer carry validity, and must be prosecuted and presumably condemned to oblivion. “Salvation” has become only another trial to be endured, and does not lead to any enduring peace or final decision. Even Mona Lisa, popular symbol of artistic and feminine beauty, has the “highway blues,” a reference to “Highway 61 Revisited” in which the highway is a road to disaster and death. She has seen life in this way, and her smile conveys to the poet the fact that she understands this.

In the following lines, a slightly different tenor is developed regarding the museum art pieces. They are frozen, and women can only sneeze in their musty presence. One of the prime displays here is a mule's head bedecked with jewels and binoculars. The poet comments that all this finery for a jackass, in light of the Visions of Johanna, seems cruel. That such a grotesque display should be made so much of is a cruel perversion of art.

The last verse again returns to the poet himself, waiting for his Madonna (Johanna, the Tambourine Man, some symbol of spiritual beauty and love, some source of regeneration) who has not yet come to him. The cage that corrodes is an ambiguous image. A cage is a standard symbol of the body, but this does not seem sufficient—rather the cage seems to be a broader symbol of the poet's mind, the room the poet is in, the museum, and the way of life he is trapped in. The important aspect of the image is the connotative, the impression that everything around the poet is corroding, is dissolving, degenerating to nothingness. The images of the girl on the stage, the fiddler, and the fishtruck are presented in a chaotic series of fragments reminiscent of the last lines of The Waste Land. The song has broken down completely in this last section. Many of the images are ambiguous, possibly irrelevant except for their connotations.

The last three lines seem to wrap up the song as his “conscience explodes.” The constant influx of images and emotions, combined with the visions and the music, has created an emotional overload, has short-circuited his mind and “exploded” it. The rational structures, the logical thought processes, have been overwhelmed by the power of the Visions and have literally wiped out his intellect, leaving him to face the emptiness and perversions of life without any defenses. It is as if he is saying, as Eliot said, that a man can't take too much reality. In this song Dylan tried to face reality as he saw it, and it blew his mind. What survives are the sounds of the harmonicas playing skeleton keys, a reference both to the look of musical notes on a page and to the musical idiom he has just pushed beyond its limits, and which has corroded or been obliterated for him; the rain, for Dylan an impotent image of redemption (cf. verse one and “Tom Thumb's Blues”); and the Visions of Johanna, the death of love and the final forceful confrontation with an immersion in total negativity.

With this song, it would seem that Dylan was unable to pull out of the situation he found himself in on Desolation Row and in “Tambourine Man.” He found no saving grace to reinject hope and vitality into his poetry. Negativity (as he saw in “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues”) has resulted in a superabundance of grotesqueries, pornography, deviation. There has been no vision, and negativity did not see him through.

Dylan has sung his rock-song, and there is no Madonna waiting for him. And so he picks up his folk guitar and begins to sing again. The John Wesley Harding album is a reversion to a country-folk idiom, changed significantly because of his experiences through three albums, but still basically a return to a previous idiom. Yet before he steps back into folk music he has a few final remarks to make on it all.

In “All Along the Watchtower,” the I-persona is abandoned for a third person narrative, but the concerns and theme follow directly from the songs I have been considering. It is constructed in three verses that continue one story straight through. The third verse suddenly cuts off the narrative, and the song is left unfinished. I believe this is so because Dylan was reviewing the same conflict he couldn't resolve previously, and dropped it in favor of his new-old idiom.

The setting and characters have an almost mythic quality. The place is a medieval castle, so distant from our time that it can take on an otherworldly aspect. The two main characters are a joker and a thief, both the disinherited of their society. The joker as a character in, for example, Shakespearean drama, always knew what was going on around him, in fact was frequently the only one who knew this, but was unable to act on his knowledge. He was a character of wisdom, but no potency. In “Tambourine Man” Dylan identified himself with this figure. The joker's state of knowledge but inability to act was Dylan's then, and is again.

“‘There must be some way out of there,’ said the joker to the thief. / ‘There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.’” The fragmented world and chaotic life his previous poetry dealt with is too much for him; he can't support it. None of the common people (plowmen or businessmen) can understand his problem. Wine is a conventional symbol of blood, and the businessmen drinking his wine are sucking his life, his creativity, out of him. Thus these common people actually become oppressors. And of course, as in previous lyrics, none of them know the real value of any of his work. At the end of the first verse Dylan's whole situation, running through all his rock lyrics, has been defined. He has been pushed around, drained, and wasted, turned into some kind of freak in his own freak show, and no one realizes what has been happening.

The thief replies to the joker. He understands the joker's position, and also sees life as a cruel joke (reminiscent of verse four of “Visions of Johanna”). But as he points out, the two of them are through all that confusion now, and there is another destiny awaiting them. Perhaps this is the thief that hung beside Christ, as some like to speculate. The joker then becomes a version of the hanged god (as in verse one of “Desolation Row”) who brings fertility to the land through his death, and salvation to those who drink his blood. The late hour would be the hour of their death. Thus a hint of possible redemption enters the poem.

The last verse sets the scene on the watchtower of the castle. The atmosphere and tone of the verse imply some sort of imminent apocalypse. Princes are on watch. Inhabitants of the castle scurry in and out. It's almost as if the place is preparing for a final assault from the barbarians. A “wild cat” growls, two strange and mysterious figures approach, and a loud wind begins to blow. The stage is set for some sort of symbolic or mythic confrontation. And that's the end. It's over. An aura of expectancy, suspense, mystery has been created, a stage has been set, and then the curtain dropped. All of the questions are left unanswered. What would have been a major breakthrough in Dylan's poetry, a symbolic confrontation with and resolution of the central conflicts in his career, falters and fails in a breeze.

Dylan finally seems to return to his beginnings as a musician, to one of the first songs he recorded, that concluded: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” The answer in “Blowin’ in the Wind” was ambiguous. So is the one in “All Along the Watchtower,” but the image is the same: a wind is rising.

What did it all mean? Dylan seems to have overthrown the question, and in the bedlam escaped the trials of it all with his drifter and headed for the tall timber (“The Drifter's Escape”). In John Wesley Harding, the rock medium was highly modified for the same reason the rock lyrics were modified—he found the less structured nature of his idiom insupportable just as he found the “real” world grotesque and unacceptable The results of this clash in both music and lyrics was a return to a simpler, clearer, “cleaner” world, a return to a “primitivist” idiom, accompanied by a self-imposed exile. Dylan seems to have come to the conclusion that the ultimate truths were to be found in those things that “whisper a few simple things eternally.” “I'll Be Your Baby Tonight,” last song on the John Wesley Harding album, and pure Hank Williams, is a song about simple companionship that is also reminiscent of the last stanza of “Dover Beach” or of Camus in The Rebel where he says that those who have found no comfort in the concept of God or in history can find refuge only in concern and compassion for those who, like themselves, are lost in an absurd world. Dylan's songs at this point seem to imply that the ultimate way a man should be is to have a simple humane concern for his fellow men, and that such basic human emotions are the sources of peace and order.

Principal Works

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Bob Dylan (musical recording) 1962

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (musical recording) 1963

The Times They Are A-Changin' (musical recording) 1964

Another Side of Bob Dylan (musical recording) 1964

Bringing It All Back Home (musical recording) 1965

Highway 61 Revisited (musical recording) 1965

Blonde on Blonde (musical recording) 1966

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (musical recording) 1967

John Wesley Harding (musical recording) 1968

Nashville Skyline (musical recording) 1969

Self Portrait (musical recording) 1970

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (musical recording) 1971

Dylan (musical recording) 1973

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (movie soundtrack) 1973

Writings and Drawings (poetry, prose, and lyrics) 1973

Planet Waves (musical recording) 1974

Before the Flood (musical recording) 1974

The Basement Tapes (musical recording) 1975

Blood on the Tracks (musical recording) 1975

Desire (musical recording) 1976

Street Legal (musical recording) 1978

Bob Dylan at Budokan (musical recording) 1979

Slow Train Coming (musical recording) 1979

Saved (musical recording) 1980

Shot of Love (musical recording) 1981

Infidels (musical recording) 1983

Real Live (musical recording) 1984

Empire Burlesque (musical recording) 1985

Lyrics, 1962-1985 (lyrics) 1985

Biograph (musical recording) 1985

Knocked Out Loaded (musical recording) 1986

The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One [with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison] (musical recording) 1988

Down in the Groove (musical recording) 1988

Oh Mercy (musical recording) 1989

The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3 [with Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne] (musical recording) 1990

Under the Red Sky (musical recording) 1990

The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) (musical recording) 1991

Good as I Been to You (musical recording) 1992

World Gone Wrong (musical recording) 1993

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (musical recording) 1995

MTV Unplugged (musical recording) 1995

Time Out of Mind (musical recording) 1997

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966 (musical recording) 1998

Love and Theft (musical recording) 2001

John Wells (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Wells, John. “Bent Out of Shape from Society's Pliers: A Sociological Study of the Grotesque in the Songs of Bob Dylan.” Popular Music in Society 6, no. 1 (1978): 39-44.

[In the following essay, Wells examines Dylan's song lyrics from a sociological perspective, viewing the recurring imagery of the grotesque in many of Dylan's songs as expressive of the individual alienated from society.]

I accept chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me.

Bob Dylan

Although Bob Dylan is widely known for his musical and lyrical contributions to the rock culture, few attempts have been made to examine the symbolic expressions and experiential dimensions of his lyrics from a sociological point of view. No doubt this lack of attention is due to the belief that Dylan is not a “serious” artist, or merely a folk singer or pop star and thus, he has no bearing upon legitimate inquiry. It is my contention that Dylan is an important artist whose writings portray unique societal themes, symbolic representations and structures of consciousness found in contemporary society. Furthermore, these topics are deeply rooted within a socio-historical context and provide linkages to similar themes throughout other historical settings.

This essay does not attempt a total evaluation of Dylan's lyrics from this standpoint, but more specifically it concentrates on a re-occurring theme in his work: the notion of the grotesque through his dramatic representation of a fictional cosmos.

The reader familiar with Dylan knows that he has developed his art in a series of “stages” beginning with the classical and traditional folk idiom, progressing through a surrealistic folk-rock phase and more recently incorporating a more toned-down version of country, folk and Spanish influences. An artist may resent his placement into arbitrary categories, pigeonholes, or “stages” in a career, but it is considered necessary to the purpose of this analysis. Certainly it is undeniable that the Dylan who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not the same man who wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”—at least not in an artistic sense. Consequently, I will focus upon the period between 1965 and 1966 in which he recorded three albums including Bringing It All Back Home,Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. These years can be considered the “surrealistic chains of rhyming images” phase of his career and particularly lends itself to the present discussion.


Most individuals in society prefer (or would prefer) to view the world in relation to a central standard or natural order of the universe. They like to feel as if they belong in a society held together by safe well-constructed systems of belief, logic and rationality which makes the everyday world both familiar and dependable. However, as hard as people try to orchestrate their lives in accordance with some harmonious consistency, at some historical point in time, the system seems to spring small leaks within its tightknit structure and even occasionally collapses at its foundation. At these historical junctures, the universe is transformed and sometimes rather suddenly into a chaotic, distorted and contradictory place. People lose their collective moral bearings, traditional beliefs and firm footholds on reality. No longer does everyday life seem comfortable and secure, but individuals feel lost, alienated and confused about their existence.

This experience is certainly not a new phenomenon. Emile Dirkheim warned long ago that if a society's moral structure splintered into disparate components, then anomie or a “feeling of normlessness” could result.1 Georg Simmel asserted that, “The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture and the technique of life.”2 In addition, numerous literary writers such as Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Samuel Becket and Albert Camus conveyed this problematic notion about the world in which they lived, i.e., under some societal conditions existence may not be viewed as essentially “ordered” in any real sense, but on the contrary, may seem utterly grotesque.

The word grotesque is certainly not a well-defined category of scientific understanding and is often used in extremely vague terms like “strange,” “incredible,” or “unbelievable.”3 In his book, The Grotesque4, Philip Thompson includes categories such as “disharmony,” the “comic and terrifying,” “extravagance and exaggeration,” “abnormality,” plus related terms and modes such as the “absurd,” the “bizarre,” and the “macabre.” He even covers functions and purposes of the word encompassing among others “aggressiveness and alienation,” “tension and unresolvability” and “playfulness.” Obviously, the variety of phenomena associated with the grotesque limits its usage as a valuable scientific word. One must be careful to clarify its definition and examine the immediate social context in conjunction with its chosen meaning. In this regard, I intend to use two components of the term grotesque which are formed most frequently in Dylan's lyrics. These include elements of disharmony and alienation of the individual within a social milieu. In creating a fictional cosmos composed of many people who seem “bent out of shape from society's pliers,”5 Dylan represents a picture of reality separated from its ordinary psychic underpinnings. His characters are often fantastic or distorted persons caught in a terrible moral drama. For Dylan in his surrealistic phase, the ordinary world and a nightmare madhouse are virtually undistinguishable.


In Bringing It All Back Home6 Dylan's songs reflect a man trapped in an insane world not quite of his own making. For example, in the song “Maggie's Farm” (which could easily be interpreted as modern society) the continuing refrain, “I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more” echoes Dylan's resentment against a woman whose brother “hands you a nickel, hands you a dime, asks you with a grin, if you're having a good time.” Here Dylan is wrestling under disturbing conditions superimposed upon his own sensibilities to the point where he just can not manage to function anymore. Maggie's farm is a grotesque place not only because it represents an overtly authoritarian locality, but offers a contradictory view of his existence. The normal routine patterns of life are juxtaposed against jumbled confusion. His attitude toward his “job” at Maggie's farm contradicts the excessive bureaucratic operations which rule our so-called familiar world. Disharmony and alienation arise through a desperate attempt to maintain his personal identity in the face of a world gone mad with the routinization of specialized, boring tasks. Dylan proclaims at the end of the song that he trys to be as he is, but everybody wants you to be like they are and while other people sing while they slave, Dylan just gets bored. A similar reaction, one even more grotesque, is displayed in “On the Road Again”. Throughout the song Dylan stumbles through a series of utterly incomprehensible misfortunes and meets a demented world where there are fistfights in the kitchen, Santa Claus is in the fireplace, there are frogs inside his socks, a milkman wears a derby hat, someone's daddy walks in wearing a Napoleon Bonaparte mask, and an uncle steals everything inside his pockets. At the end of each chorus Dylan wonders why his woman wants to know why he does not live here when it is obvious that they are both caught up in an uprecendented realm of absurdities. This corresponds closely to Wolfgang Kayser's observation that in genuine grotesque art, the everyday world is suddenly changed into a strange and unpleasant place, into a world in which we do not wish to live.7 Dylan's use of incongruent scenes and stark images are reminiscent of the French symbolist poets, particularly Rimbaud and Baudelaire. One of the key functions of these poets was to provoke their audience into a different kind of perception by presenting to the ordinary eye an object or person so dazzling that it would destroy the dominant temporal-spatial order and rational mode of consciousness.8 Indeed, Dylan's creations of grotesque disharmonies reveal a farcical universe not founded upon any systematic and logical representations, and his work during this period is aligned with Walter Bagenot's declaration that “… taken as a whole the universe is absurd … all is incongruous.”9

Highway 61 Revisited10 contains some of the best poetic imagery Dylan has ever written. His blurring of reality and irreality in such songs as “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” further challenges the familiar world to which we are accustomed. In “Tombstone Blues” one again finds the world-as-a-madhouse theme. Dylan encounters, among others, the city fathers trying to endorse the reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse, Jezebel, a nun who violently knits, Jack the Ripper who sits at the head of the Chamber of Commerce, an hysterical bride in a penny arcade, and John the Baptist who tortures a thief. Throughout all these charades Dylan repeats the alienated refrain that “‘Mama's in a factory (she ain't got no shoes”) and daddy's in an alley (he's looking for food) and I'm in the street with the tombstone blues.’”

In “Desolation Row” Dylan descends completely into the abyss of modern society. Here is a place inhabited by extremely grotesque figures in a cold cunning and mechanical environment. As he descends into this Dantesque netherworld he meets a riot squad who needs some place to go, sexless patients trying to blow-up a leather cup, Ophelia who is an old maid on her twenty-second birthday, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, the Titanic sailing at dawn, and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in a captain's tower. In one of the more chilling choruses Dylan declares:

Now at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do

Obviously Dylan is experiencing a radically different kind of existence and the surrealistic images he projects causes one to shudder because they reflect a totally estranged world. It is his own season in hell and here especially the similarities between Dylan and Rimbaud are quite apparent. Rimbaud, almost a century earlier, experimented with all sorts of drugs, underwent hunger, exhaustion and other extreme physical deprivations to produce a “complete deregularization of the senses.” Through this method Rimbaud hoped to achieve poetic visions which would loosen the moorings of ordinary consciousness through the dissolution of ordinary reality. Dylan himself certainly used various drugs, particularly amphetamines and marijuana as documented in Dylan,12 a biography by Anthony Scaduto. It is impossible to accurately estimate the importance of the drug experience in connection with artistic achievement. One does not necessarily need drugs to induce a visionary experience or produce fantastic images. As Salvador Dali once said, “I do not take drugs. I am drugs.” Nevertheless, Dylan does make numerous references to drugs in his songs and one may safely say that he used some method similar to Rimbaud's to gain visionary insights and surrealistic chains of rhyming images devoid of any conscious control by a rationalistic state of mind.

The album Blonde on Blonde13 contains many stylistic resemblances to Highway 61 Revisited, although perhaps expanding even more significantly the deeply rooted paradoxical nature of human relationships—especially those between a man and a woman. In virtually every song Dylan alludes to a woman he loves or cares about, but someone, something or some unfathomable forces are always operating to prevent any real substantial union between them. The titles themselves reveal this dilemma: “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “I Want You,” “Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine,” “Fourth Time Around.” Whereas many of Dylan's earlier songs depicted a man alienated and confused from impenetrable forces in society, Blonde on Blonde focuses upon a man alienated from practically the only thing left to confide in and find security, i.e., a woman. Ultimately, this attempt also fails. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the sadly ironic “Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine,” in which Dylan laments the loss of his girlfriend who is not strong enough to hold him. Dylan even wonders why it gets so hard to care (“it can't be this way everywhere”) and in the end he resolutely lets her go her own way.

But if Blonde on Blonde has one song which somehow perfectly captures the grotesque disharmony and alienation themes with which we are dealing, it must be the superbly written “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Discussing Dylan's lyrics in this context is severely hampered by the fact that the reader is only reading the lyrics and not listening to the song as it was produced in the studio. This song in particular cannot possibly be wholly experienced as a truly remarkable work of art unless one actually hears Dylan's vocalization and musical instrumentation. Aided with the use of an electric guitar, an eerie circus-like organ sound and a steady drum beat, Dylan sings as if this is his last day on earth. When he delivers the repeated refrain of every chorus, “Oh Mama can this really be the end—to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again”, there is no doubt that this is a man crying from the utter depths of experience. It has been said that with the Beatles you thought you had a chance; with the Rolling Stones you knew you didn't want one. In this song Dylan confirms that you will never have a chance. This, as he says, is really the end.

After repeated listening one realizes that Mobile no longer just means being stuck in an Alabama city, but more symbolically, Mobile represents the grotesque turbulent world we all inhabit. In this song Dylan drinks some Texas medicine which strangles up his mind and experiences people getting uglier, loses his sense of time and wonders what price he has to pay for going through all these things twice. Among other grotesque scenes Dylan portrays a ragman drawing circles up and down a block, Shakespeare in an Alley, railroad men who drink up his blood like wine, a grandpa who is buried in the rocks and after all this he moans “wouldn't it be my luck—to be caught without a ticket—and be discovered beneath a truck.” Dylan may be stuck in an insane world, but he somehow maintains his sanity by not taking the world or himself too seriously. This may be a terrible place to live, but it is also something of a joke and if a person reaches the point where something has strangled up his mind, he has no sense of time, people just get uglier, and he wonders why he has to go through all these things twice then it is obvious that “normal reality” has no meaning whatsoever. The world has become transformed and transformed into a grotesque madhouse. As Benjamin Nelson has noted, “Images of the grotesque … regularly seem to multiply when large numbers of people find it impossible to function, much less thrive, in their everyday worlds.”14 This is why Dylan's work remains important from a sociological point of view.


In developing his poetry fused with an electric guitar sound, Dylan struck a vital chord in the consciousness of contemporary youth. In the mid-sixties this symbolic re-representation of his own experiences condensed into a few lines and songs the experiences many persons were having at a time. Philip Thompson correctly maintains that the grotesque is an appropriate expression of the problematic nature of existence and “… It is no accident that the grotesque mode in the literature tends to be prevalent in societies and eras marked by strife, radical change, or disorientation.”15 Certainly, the era of the mid-sixties marked a dramatic change in the fluid motion of American society, not only from events such as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the generation gap, but also many young people began altering their consciousness through various drugs, eastern religions, vegetarianism and so forth. There is no need to chronicle these changes here since they have been well studied and explored but the important point for our purposes is that societies do run courses which are surely not linear and exhibit malices, distempers and functional disorders. Invariably these shifts or breakdowns are coterminous with dramatic shifts in structure of consciousness and re-representations of experience.16

If these changes in the normal ordering of existence are evidenced by certain writers like Bob Dylan describing the world as grotesque, circus-like, crazy or absurd, and if this image corresponds to other people's experiences, then perhaps social scientists would do well to examine so-called everyday life from a more radical perspective. Although, as Nelson points out, terms like consciousness, experience and existence have largely been dropped from sociological vocabulary, it seems evident that we risk eliminating these concepts at our own peril.


  1. See Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, translated and with an introduction by George Simpson (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1933).

  2. Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 324.

  3. Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, translated by Verich Weisstein (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968), p. 17.

  4. Philip Thompson, The Grotesque (London: Methuen and Company, 1972).

  5. This quote is derived from the song, “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)” on the Bringing It All Back Home album.

  6. Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home (New York: Columbia Records, 1965) CS9128.

  7. Kayser (1963: 184-185).

  8. John Senior, The Way Down and Out: The Occult in Symbolist Literature (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), p. 95.

  9. Walter Bagehot, “The First Edinburgh Reviewers” Literary Studies, Vol. I (1855), 30.

  10. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (New York: Columbia Records, 1965) KCS 9189.

  11. See Enid Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud (New York: New Directions, 1968).

  12. Anthony Scaduto, Dylan (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Inc., 1971).

  13. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (New York: Columbia Records, 1965) C25841.

  14. Benjamin Nelson, “The Omnipresence of the Grotesque” in The Psycho-analytic Review 57:3, (1972), 514.

  15. Thompson, (1972:11).

  16. Nelson, (1972:507-512).

I would like to express my gratitude to Donald A. Nielsen, Michael Moore and Donna Allison for their thoughtful suggestions and comments.

Further Reading

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Santoro, Gene. “Blowin' in His Own Wind.” Nation 272, no. 23 (11 June 2001): 18-22.

A review of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, a biography by Howard Sounes.

Turner, Steve. “Watered-down Love.” Christianity Today 45, no. 7 (21 May 2001): 89-90.

A review of the book Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, by Howard Sounes, from a Christian perspective.


Bloom, Fred. “Seeing Dylan Seeing.” Yale Review 71, no. 2 (Winter 1982): 304-20.

A personal account of the significance of Dylan's music to the author's generation of adolescents in the 1960s, as well as his continuing significance to this generation today.

Bluestein, Gene. “Folk Tradition, Individual Talent: A Note on the Poetry of Rock.” Massachusetts Review 11, no. 2 (Spring 1970): 373-84.

Discusses the influence of American folklore, formal poetry, and musical traditions on contemporary rock music, such as the songs of Dylan.

Bromell, Nicholas. “Both Sides of Bob Dylan: Public Memory, the Sixties, and the Politics of Meaning.” Tikkun 10, no. 4 (July-August 1995): 13-19.

Asserts that Dylan's music was part of a culture of the 1960s which tried to redefine democracy and the scope of political action.

Davis, Frances. “Music: Napoleon in Rags.” Atlantic Monthly 283, no. 5 (May 1999): 108-17.

Discusses the influence of Dylan's lyrics on folk, rock, and pop music.

Fusilli, Jim. “At 60, the Minstrel Man Moseys On.” Wall Street Journal (23 May 2001): A24.

A brief discussion of Dylan's enduring status as a top rock star.

Goldberg, Steven. “Bob Dylan and the Poetry of Salvation.” Saturday Review 53, (30 May 1970): 43-6, 57.

Goldberg demonstrates that the expression of mystical experience pervades nearly all of Dylan's songs.

Hoskyns, Barney. “As Arthur Rimbaud Once Said.” New Statesman 108, no. 2802 (30 November 1984): 36.

A review of two books on Dylan: Dylan, by Jonathan Cott, and A Darker Shade of Pale, by Wilfrid Mellers.

Kermode, Frank, and Stephen Spender. “Bob Dylan: The Metaphor at the End of the Funnel. But is it art?” Esquire (May 1972): 109-10, 118, 188.

Examines the status of Dylan's works as art.

Linstrom, Naomi. “Dylan: Song Returns to Poetry.” Texas Quarterly 19, no. 4 (Winter 1976): 131-36.

Considers the arguments for and against classifying Dylan as a literary poet.

McClure, Michael. “The Poet's Poet.” Rolling Stone 156, (14 March 1974): 32-34.

Asserts that Dylan is a poet with literary affinities to Allen Ginsberg, William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Franz Kafka, and other celebrated writers of great literature.

Meehan, Thomas. “Public Writer No. 1?” New York Times Magazine, (12 December 1965): 44-45.

Discusses the popular regard for Dylan among college students as a major American poet in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

Newfield, Jack. “The Literature of the Movement.” Evergreen Review 11, no. 46 (April 1967): 50-53, 103-4.

Names Dylan as one of the foremost poets of the literature of the new generation.

Ricks, Christopher B. “Clichés.” In The Force of Poetry, pp. 356-68. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Discusses the use of cliché in literature, citing Dylan's use of cliché phrases in his lyrics as a vehicle for shedding new light on old concepts.

Waddell, Ray. “At 60, Dylan Still Rolling on the Road.” Billboard 113, no. 22 (2 June 2001): 5116.

A review of Dylan's concerts.

Additional coverage of Dylan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors First Revision Series, Vols. 41-44; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 4, 6, 12, 77; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 16.

Carolyn Sumner (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Sumner, Carolyn. “The Ballad of Dylan and Bob.” Southwest Review 66, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 41-54.

[In the following essay, Sumner discusses the recurring imagery and themes found in Bob Dylan’s songs as they relate to his own personal experiences.]

A striking feature of Bob Dylan's art, and one which suggests the possibility of analysis, is the continuity over the years of certain imagery in his lyrics. His songs grow out of a few consistently held concerns which have gathered about them clusters of repeated images. These images, and the themes that grow from them, emerge primarily from the material of his own life, most dramatically from his poor-little-rich-boy position as the most brilliant superstar of the generation that created the troubled magnitude.

Astronomy is not the only dark stage on which the supernova is a death trip. The most far-reaching of Bob Dylan's artistic concerns, therefore, has been the conflict between security and freedom, and the search for a saving balance in which these do not become mutually and suicidally exclusive. The conflict is also crucial to Dylan because of the obvious contradiction between his fragile personality and his demand for a prophetic art. The personality cries for safety, while the art insists on risking everything. Dylan has characteristically found himself caught in a troublesome metamorphosis of freedom into security. Much of the frequently noted impulse to create new and surprising directions in his music has been an attempt at recovering freedom from his own artistic pretensions to it.

The stuff of personal freedom has been endlessly elusive to him, humbling him continually, and reducing him relentlessly to the position of a seeker. He has had it in his hands at times, but only momentarily, the taste more tantalizing than fulfilling, the artist able to form an image of freedom just as he loses the substance. Dylan has watched yesterday's pain turn in his art to today's paranoia, and has seen his own heroism become a cruel defense. A cry of pain within six months became a point, which became a position, which became an empire in whose temples the author himself was only “Tom Thumb.” He could not find an exodus from the Egypt he had created with the bricks and mortar of his own genius. The function of his art became eventually to devise ways to uncreate itself, to explode and escape its own stolid achievements. The longer Dylan dealt with this dilemma, the more he became convinced that the way to approach freedom was to abandon his effort to shape or understand it as an abstract quality, an ideal, and seek instead to catch its shadows where it revealed itself as interacting forces in his own personality. Personal freedom, therefore, as it became a more subtly understood quality in Dylan's art, appeared in dialogue and relationship, as the harmony of meaning among the voices of many needs.1

The simplest breakdown of personal freedom in Bob Dylan's lyrics is a dualism. Dylan once told an interviewer that he wanted to be invisible as well as famous,2 and complained to another that the public schools taught security but not obscurity.3 This basic dualism, which he apparently felt strongly before he fully articulated or understood its significance, appeared in his early poetry as wind or water, rising, blowing, or beating against mountain and stone. In another popular version it was the highway, sinuous and supple, winding around every obstacle set before it; or the motorcycle which carried Bob Dylan on that highway beyond the repressive past. At the time he wrote the early lyrics, Dylan could not have foreseen the degree to which he would be tempted to the same stifling securities he rebuked. Attacked as he was by critic and fanatic alike, by his followers and his own fears, he eventually sought solace for the same wounds that had plagued his civilization throughout the post-World War II era: paranoia, anxiety, doubt, insecurity. He had the disease, but with one difference. He hoped freedom would cure it.

The achievement of freedom, however, was not so simple as it at first seemed. Finding an exit, running and shouting back to the highway, hopping a motorcycle or a freight train, he could seem to escape on his own metaphors. But the tension between these two forces grew greater and more complex as his success and his fears grew. The exits themselves were to be corrupted, eventually even the exit of truth. The tension between these two forces soon emerged as the primary rhythm of his art. Self-expression struggling with self-protection came to generate the basic energy of his music. Dylan once told his biographer, Anthony Scaduto, that he thought of himself as a true Gemini, “blowing hot and cold.” His vision of himself has always been double, and his language and imagery follow suit. Prophecy and protection form the double helix of his art.

Dylan abandoned the vehicular metaphors of escape soon after he invented them. The highway exits were too easy, too obvious. They were almost literal, and Dylan, like all young artists, soon learned that there was no literal exit from slavery. The dualism, however, continued to haunt him, as did the growing awareness that the struggle was not only social but personal. The conviction that the tension was, in fact, primarily his own and would follow him onto any highway led Dylan to shift the emphasis of his imagery toward character. By the time of Blonde on Blonde, when his personal struggle was most intense, he could fill a double album with conversations and metaphors of character.

The basis for this Gemini imagery, this new dualism, was the yin/yang relationship of male and female. Over the years clusters of images have grown up around the male and female Bob Dylan. The raw material for the contrast may have come from the folk song “The Gypsy Davy.” In this song a Spanish gypsy passing through town seduces with his music the sensitive young wife of a powerful and wealthy villager. The wronged husband pursues the two and comes upon them in the gypsy's camp. He tries to shame his wife with the responsibilities she had abandoned, and almost succeeds. But she has already put on the gypsy's gloves of Spanish leather, and the act becomes a symbol to the frustrated male that he has lost her forever to the gypsy's freedom. In that song, Bob Dylan must have seen himself looking at the separated parts of his own soul. Around the basic plot of “The Gypsy Davy” he built a cluster of images to describe the nature of his own struggle to be free.

The free soul in Dylan is always female and almost always associated with Spain or something Spanish. She is frequently in flight from a male (often Dylan himself), but if not pursued, she is dancing, usually a Spanish dance. She is also associated with flowers and jewelry, those contributions of human art and of nature that celebrate freedom. Occasionally she is associated with real women in Dylan's life, and is even named in the songs and poems directly (as Sue in “Eleven Outlined Epitaphs,” or Johanna in “Visions of Johanna”) or indirectly (as “She wears an Egyptian ring” in “She Belongs to Me”). She is sometimes seen in the presence of a moon and/or serene body of water. The latter are old symbols for peace and wholeness, the depth of the tranquil pool reflecting the perfect roundness of the moon. Since in Bob Dylan's lyrics a dark sky and rising, falling, or troubled water are always signs of the breakdown of natural order, the old symbols take on a personal meaning for this particular poet. Such clusters of imagery can be traced through many songs, from the early pieces like “Spanish Harlem” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” through the anguished middle songs in which a woman invites him to watch her without admission price dancing in “her honky-tonk lagoon …” “Neath her Panamanian moon” (“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”); and on to the calypso dancers at the dock to watch the departing of the Titanic in “Desolation Row”; to Blood on the Tracks which includes the line, “She might be in Tangier” (“If You See Her, Say Hello”).

The title of this last song suggests the other side of the freedom cluster, the trapped and pursuing male of “The Gypsy Davy.” This male represents Dylan's own need for success and security, and he is cursed with the worst elements of the chauvinistic character. His life is concerned with acquisition and power, and he is obsessed with jealousy, cruelty, and captivity. The images which surround him are dramatically different from those which surround the female. Like King Midas, he owns everything he touches. He is “Diamond Jim,” who “owned the town's only diamond mine” (“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”). That image is appropriate to the strength with which our security secures us, and also to the quality of Bob Dylan's own power. Even in the hype and heaped wealth of popular culture, he owns the only diamond mine in town.

The women who relate to this male are always prostitutes, even though they may appear in the guise of respectability and responsibility. The debutante who demands Dylan's soul for her upkeep is an example. The free female in “Stuck Inside of Mobile” reminds him contemptuously that his debutante knows his need for security and feeds on it. But she has no understanding of what he wants. (It is hardly a secret that what Bob Dylan wants is freedom.) Like the forlorn husband in “The Gypsy Davy,” these women cannot induce unity by love and so are reduced to heckling freedom with the price it requires and the responsibilities it abandons. These prostituted versions of freedom delude the hungry male with the oldest lie in our society: success and freedom are the same thing. “Cinderella, she seems so easy” (“Desolation Row”), but “Look out kid, they keep it all hid” (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”). Cinderella inspires an elusive pursuit, changing costume and quality at midnight—the worst hour—and drawing the helpless seeker into endlessly repetitive and compulsive behavior which is as seductive as it is meaningless. He finds himself trapped in circles, “like a slave in orbit” (“Dirge”), being beaten and domesticated by his own need for achievement, his only reward “a moment's glory” (“Dirge”).

Even when this female is acknowledged to be a prostitute, she has style. Her English is perfect, even in Juarez, as “she invites you up into her room” (“Just like Tom Thumb's Blues”). In spite of the appearance of speaking the same language as the artist, however, she offers nothing up in her room but a view from the Tower of Babel. She takes from Dylan the only thing that matters, his voice, and leaves him “howling at the moon.” Without his voice, the male is no more than a beast, a performer in a mindless act, babbling meaningless words beneath an image of his own former perfection.

Occasionally Dylan presents the destructive male in the full dress of success, trying to masquerade as the free female. Then he becomes “Just like a Woman” or “Queen Jane Approximately” (the latter plays on the dual meaning of queen: a sovereign and a man dressed as a woman). In this disguise, the male is most vulnerable and ludicrous. He/she “breaks just like a little girl” (“Just like a Woman”) or is warned that the critics will eventually turn against him, and the creations they praised will become boring, leaving the achievement meaningless (“Queen Jane Approximately”).

When the hungry male becomes attached to this “fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains” (“As I Went Out One Morning”), he finds himself trapped in his own success. He has won, but it is with a “soulful bounding leap” (“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”) that he dies in the arms of his own success. The deep ambivalence of Bob Dylan's feelings about success is evident from his frequent use of double language to describe it. “Soulful” suggests the slang and success of popular culture, yet the loss of a soul; “bounding” indicates action, yet paralysis. In the act of singing freedom he surrenders his soul; in the moment of achievement he inhibits his liberty absolutely. Corrupted by fear, his prophecy becomes rain, or judgment, which falls on his shoes and turns the road he cannot leave into “mud” (“Shelter from the Storm”), and eventually into “quicksand.”4

Sold on his own message that poetry is the slave of pain, and encouraged to capitalize on the lie by the profiteers of his industry, he becomes “lost,” a theological word, in that rain (“Tom Thumb's Blues”). The rainman in Mobile—all the advisers around him and fears inside him—offers him two cures for his pain. One is “Texas medicine,” after which a man never thirsts again, and the other is “just railroad gin” (“Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”). Railroad gin suggests commitment to travel and with it the compulsive search that is the source of the pain, not the solution to it. But by this time the male is too confused to tell one from the other. He mixes them and turns his own truth to alienation. Eventually his mind is strangled as much as his body on this poison drink, this half-truth, with the result that he becomes alienated and compulsive. People, he complains, grow uglier to him, and he sighs wearily that one act is so like another that he can no longer distinguish the passing of time.

The male can now speak of himself only in terms of falls, prisons, slavery, and rooms with no doorknobs or cities with no exits. Some of Dylan's most moving music and some of his most inventive imagery serve the purpose of conveying the depths of horror into which this character falls. The songs are twisted with a grotesque irony and form, grieving over the fact that at the heart of this prophetic singer lies such a deep commitment and persistent compulsion toward safety. In “I Shall Be Released” the compulsion takes on attributes of the fall from grace, protection being the poison apple in the garden of freedom. “Ev'ry man needs protection,” and as a result, “ev'ry man must fall.” In his fallen state this man finds himself in a prison that is as much of this world yet of hell as the hotel room in Sartre's No Exit.

Most of Dylan's compulsion imagery, in fact, is possessed of the sense of place and space common to existentialist writing. The resemblance, however, is in form only. For though the emotional impact and choice of metaphor in this music resembles that of existentialism, the thought and purpose of Dylan's art is actually the reverse. Existentialism seeks freedom from belief through the affirmation of man's right and ability to create his own reality and values. Dylan has experienced the heights of human power, the ultimate in human security, and found it only a fall from innocence and an empty shell of freedom. Perhaps it would always be better to ask a superstar about power, rather than a philosopher. Dylan has been lavished with money and power, he has been praised and adored, he has created reality and values, prophesied and seen the truth. But all of the magnificence has been corrupted into self-protection without the warmth and integrative power of deep belief, the “shelter from the storm.” Dylan has seen a large irony in the existentialists' combat with the universe outside themselves. For though the storm is certainly the fans and critics, the success and other temptations to unfreedom around him, the real danger is what lies inside him, his own fear and alienation, his own corrupted and defensive prophecy, his own rain. A line like “shelter from the storm,” therefore, must include the personal dimension and be set in the context of lines like “I stand inside the rain” (“Just like a Woman”).

Much of the substance of the compulsion metaphors does, however, adhere in the place, the nature of their setting. In “Desolation Row” the compulsion appears as alienation, a room in which the doorknob has been broken. In “Visions of Johanna” it appears as emptiness, the singer backed up against the wall and stranded in a lonely room where nothing has meaning (not even the country music on the radio), and no one really knows or touches anyone else. Often this compulsive Dylan finds himself abandoned in a strategically metaphorical city. Reminiscent of the great city myths of the Old Testament, these city metaphors represent power, wealth, and success coupled with idolatry, degradation, and despair. Mobile is one of the cities. It is a logical choice for a man whose life and work involve him with country music and culture. But he is “stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.” The last word suggests the repetitiveness and hopelessness of the trap, and Memphis suggests there is still a vision of something better. But the name of the city he is stuck in is the chief irony, for it means motion, but suggests circles. Indeed, he is “stuck” there, as the whole meaningless environment is stuck, performing the ritual tasks of success like a revolving golden record, or like the “slave in orbit” in “Dirge.” In Juarez, Dylan cannot find his way for his own rain; there is no healing, not even from the doctor, and no exit, even at Easter.

Most especially, however, Dylan meets his destiny in Rome, where the most dramatic tests of idolatry in our civilization were made, and where Bob Dylan sees that history repeated interminably amid the rubble of fallen gods and the dust of great age (“When I Paint My Masterpiece”). In Rome there is no way out of the “ancient footsteps,” as there is no way to distinguish time in Mobile. In Rome there is a coliseum full of adoring crowds, while in Mobile he is treated with kindness and given tape for his recordings, knowing every day that he is entrenching himself deeper in a city from which there is no escape. Success and hopelessness seem to be blood brothers, and the only future possible is to hold out for the golden calf to fall from its altar and shatter the hard hopelessness below, offering an exodus. In Juarez the prostitutes steal Dylan's voice, while in Mobile revelation has ceased and the circular behavior becomes, because of that, more intolerable.

The first character to appear in “Memphis Blues,” a ragman (rags are sometimes associated with the prophetic Dylan, as in “Like a Rolling Stone”) is busy drawing circles, but will not tell why, will not give the act meaning, because he cannot speak. When the trapped singer tries to find a way to get information in or out of the city, he discovers that someone has stolen the post office (and with it his own freedom and truth) and locked the mailbox. The acquisitive male has finally lodged himself in Babylon and Sodom-Gomorrah, “a concrete world full of souls” (“Three Angels”), where everything living has been sealed in concrete, and there is no exit short of an apocalypse. “Outside in the distance the wind began to howl” (“All along the Watchtower”).

The apocalypse, happily, is in the wings, and it introduces into the drama a fourth character. This fourth figure is named “Dylan.” Because Dylan is a name, it is easy to forget that it is also a metaphor, that it is, in fact, the most pervasive metaphor this poet created. “Dylan” is the gypsy Davy with his song and call to escape. He is the artist, the voice within the anguished and separated soul that makes truth out of the conflict and works to reunite the fragmented personality. When “Dylan” appears in the lyrics, he is almost always in the first person pronoun, either conversing with another character (“Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?”) or narrating the tale of his involvement with other characters. He emerges from the alienated psyche and from its concrete captivity like an Old Testament earthquake, destroying the cities, the myths and idols of his own making. It is this healing and redeeming Dylan who confronts the alienation and who faces the “howling beast,” the corrupted singer, which divides his soul, and screams from the “borderline that separated you from me” (“Idiot Wind”). Like Ariel, he is restricted by a human landlord who can be a tyrannical, if sometimes magic, master. But “Dylan,” alone of all the four characters in this cast, argues with Bob, the human landlord, for the rights of the free tenant within. “Dear Landlord,” he pleads, “please don't put a price on my soul” (“Dear Landlord”). He sings to celebrate the freedom he is continually in peril of losing, and he sings that song like a bird on a fence, either side of which is the loss of what he sings (“You're a Big Girl Now”). When the earthquake of distress sends the idols and securities falling, and the forlorn free female into flight, only “Dylan” escapes to continue “like a bird that flew” (“Tangled Up in Blue”). Only “Dylan” survives to bring the fragments together again.

In “As I Went Out One Morning,” “Dylan” resists the temptations of the enslaved female by commanding her to depart from him. He gives the command in what at first seems a redundant phrase: “with my voice.” When the woman resists in a perverse but seductive line, the narrator responds with the same subdued determination that she has “no choice.” The rhyme on voice and choice is what the metaphor “Dylan” is all about. It is his voice which has always given Dylan a choice in his own fate, even in the days when his success was warmest and his confusion coldest, even when the voice sounded like a “howling beast” with “raging glory” (“Idiot Wind”) or was “howling at the moon” (“Tom Thumb's Blues”). The ultimate threat to the safety and sanity of the artist is the loss of that voice. If he loses “Dylan,” then no diamond mine on the planet can buy a cure for his mortal wound. He may be too weak to take a shot in Juarez (where shots are dangerous), but if his prophecy is also corrupted, the weakness becomes devastating. When the prostitute takes his voice and leaves him howling at the moon, he is dragged to the deepest degradation of “Dylan.” Yet, “blame it on a simple twist of fate” (“Simple Twist of Fate”), or of faith, “Dylan” has, to this point at least, always returned.

The four actors in Dylan's character study of his own personality recur in many masks in many songs. They argue and converse together, they are enraged or in love with each other. Over the years they have grown, as he has grown, and their relationship has become more complex and subtle. In Blood on the Tracks, these characters appear together as a pair in “Idiot Wind,” as a trio in “Tangled Up in Blue,” and in the full four-part cast in “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” In the first of these songs, “Dylan” is in the first person arguing in his notoriously biting style and bitter sarcasm with another character. The argument and the anger, however, are not rejecting, for the other character lives very near, on the other side of a “borderline.” Dylan cannot reject half himself, and the compulsive and fear-driven Dylan has, the song tells us, his own holiness and way of loving. The argument between the two, however, concerns the fact (and with it the warning) that as the quantities in Dylan's life have increased, the qualities have changed. Everything is now reversed and turned upside down. What had seemed to be the top is now the bottom, and what had seemed to be good has become bad. The prophecy is a lie, the images are corrupted (“Blowin' in the Wind” to “Idiot Wind”), the language is reversed (bad for good, top for bottom), and even common clichés like “making me see stars” take on ominous double meanings. In the ambivalent and treacherous language of this apparently simple conversation the full terror of the fallen world appears. In the storms of “Idiot Wind,” where there seems to be no shelter, truth has become deceptive and elusive, success is illusory, and the full impact of the separation and tension in Dylan's own soul is manifest.

In “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Dylan” is again the first person narrator, in love with a beautiful and free woman he has once lost and later recovered. (Loss and recovery of freedom is the basic rhythm of Dylan's music, as the tension between the two is its basic energy.) In the song, the narrator is taken in by this woman to live with her and another man. He watches the relationship of these lovers fall victim to harsh and painful times, becoming more troubled as the revolution and music in the cafés above their apartment demand more from the two. How demanding and harsh must Dylan remember those difficult days of the sixties to have been on the fragile psychological balances inside him. As the lovers become more preoccupied with the commands from the culture above and more alienated from each other, “Dylan” gradually detaches from his love and identification with either of them. The male becomes a slave dealer, an occupation which kills something important inside him. The female is forced to sell “everything she owned,” which brings on emotional frigidity. Dealing, selling, and slavery are rich images for Dylan, as well as old fears. His security has always threatened to become slavish and suffocating, as his freedom has threatened to become alienated and isolating. The point at which these two qualities become destructive, however, is the point at which they separate and struggle against each other. The male is seduced by security, and he forces in the process the merchandising of the only thing the female owns, her free spirit.

At that point the relationship becomes dramatically unbalanced; both characters lose their essential qualities, and “Dylan,” still down in the basement, is threatened with loss of his life. When the relationship breaks up, “Dylan” comments, “I became withdrawn.” Shortly thereafter comes the apocalypse and the beginning again. If “Dylan” does not escape with freedom always, he at least knows how to survive. He leaves the scene like a bird, not in joyous flight perhaps, but in flight from joylessness. If he cannot fly free, he can fly away, he can “keep on.”

In “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” the full cast of characters appears. Diamond Jim is the powerful male, feared, admired, and patronized by those who love and those who hate him, the owner of the only diamond mine in town. Two women relate to this male. The first is Lily, an innocent and abused woman, hurt already by several men in her past (hurt by that chauvinistic and domesticating force of security), and about to become the new bride and victim of Diamond Jim. She is not thinking about the latter, however, but about another male, her father. This father she seldom sees, and this is the source of her sadness and her vulnerability. Her father is the rightful male, the real king (Lily is a “princess”), the force which infuses Big Jim's diamonds and which parents and protects Lily and her freedom. The other woman involved is Rosemary, the prostituted female, masked by false eyelashes and manner, but grown from the earlier music. She is now claimed as Jim's wife, and though she resembles Queen Jane (“looking like a queen without a crown”), she has become a tragic rather than a camp character. Rosemary is a flower of remembrance, and the memories of this album and of this theme in Dylan's art are always pain, always “Blood on the Tracks.” Consequently, Rosemary is revealed to have done many evil deeds in her life, but the most evil was a suicide attempt. (More than once Dylan has understood his own search for freedom or security to be suicidal.) She is the other side of Diamond Jim's cruelty and sadism, the masochistic mask of the real female, freedom.

With these characters in dramatic distress, unable to make connections among themselves or meaning from their misery, the Jack of Hearts appears on the scene. He is a roving actor and someone's royal son, bringing the game of chance, the opportunity for freedom and a new deal, back into the endless rounds of sad success. When he enters the cabaret, he causes a stir among the patrons. Hereafter, the major characters relate by their response to the Jack of Hearts. All of them are fascinated by this new arrival and either follow him with their eyes, or fail to get him off their mind, or remember him from the past. Perhaps the most relevant comment to this argument is Diamond Jim's remark that he may once have known the Jack of Hearts in Mexico. The sensation which is so profound for the major characters, however, creates no real change in the balance and reality of the other characters in the cabaret. They return almost immediately to their diversions. The Jack of Hearts, in spite of his cleverness, is just a temporary oddity, and they quietly and quickly take up the games they were playing before he interrupted their lives. So the artist discovers again that he faces the domesticating slave whips of fame for only “a moment's glory,” and the real meaning of his art is the dialogue and healing of his own soul, not the pleasing of an audience. Rosemary is a performer in the cabaret which is the song's setting. Restless with the meaninglessness of her life and falseness of her attachment to Diamond Jim (pretending to be a wife and finding herself only a prostitute of power), she begins to plan an apocalyptical break in the sadomasochistic embrace.

By this point in Bob Dylan's history, all these images and associations are rich in accumulated meaning. In this mature song, however, there is a complex resolution of the forces at play in the images. The resolution is appropriately violent, to fit its ballad form, and is carefully calculated to introduce another complicating force in Dylan's life and art: law, society, and the “hanging judge.” At the end of the song there are two sudden and violent crimes, the murder of Diamond Jim and the robbery of the bank safe. Rosemary is the murderer, and the Jack of Hearts is the thief. The weapon is a penknife, an instrument in which Rosemary sees her own reflection clearly, perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the last.

If it is true that Bob Dylan has often gone home with all the profits, it is also true that he has killed his own myths and illusions with a pen as dangerous to himself as to his audience. He has also always committed both the thieving and murdering on a stage before us when the houselights go down and the clear light of performance reveals the truth. The lights go out suddenly in this song, but in the dark come the stabbing strobe lights of self-discovery and self-revelation that are Dylan's profession and his destiny. It is true, further, that Bob Dylan has stolen our own securities from us, and has a history of attacking all the gods and hanging judges of our society. That murder is a dangerous act, and when the artist escapes not only with his life, but with the treasure in his hands, it is only by way of the sacrifice of Rosemary, who somehow recognizes this is her destiny and the only redemptive way to end her life. To see her face clearly with the penknife is to destroy Diamond Jim's hold on Lily and set her free for her real mate, the playful and performing Jack of Hearts. (The Jack is a prince, and Lily is a princess.)

What good is truth, finally, if it cannot stand between freedom and the law, if it cannot leave an exit for the former and satisfaction for the latter. It is only by recovering his free female soul from Rosemary's masks and pretenses and opening that soul to the ultimate threats by which it is tested, that Dylan recovers his voice and with it his choice to be free. The artist has bought his survival again, at the cost of his security and at the price of a painful public look at the truth about himself.

But the nature of his freedom is never artistry alone. In watching these characters relate, we can catch brief and elusive glimpses of the great and formless qualities which make up the material of Bob Dylan's freedom. Harmony and balance, respect and protest, grief and guilt, risk and sacrifice, sin and song are all part of the mix. They reveal themselves to us not as pure qualities but as conflicts and desires, as shadowy suggestions and twists of character. They unmask themselves suddenly in the simple wink of a false eyelash or the subtle turn of a head. But the totality of these acts adds up to the complex whole of psychological freedom as Bob Dylan experiences it. Most of all, we hear in the songs the drivenness of truth to survive. We can't blame him for being lucky, Dylan tells us, half with mockery, half with pride. He lives a dangerous profession and destiny, so we must agree and meet with joy the ultimate amoral trickiness of that deeply moral metaphor, “Dylan.”

Tracing this complex of images does not exhaust the meaning of any of the songs in which any of these images appear. Other dimensions obviously coexist with the personal. Grief is closely associated with freedom in Blood on the Tracks, and it is well known by now that the whole album was inspired by the threatened breakup of a profound relationship in his life. In the same act that sets him free, Dylan has often recognized the possibility of that kind of death. He has sacrificed characters in his art and perhaps persons in his life to the greedy Diamond Jim inside him and the amoral Ariel always needing breath. For all the clever and willful games of the Jack of Hearts, he does jack around the hearts to which he sings so passionately and prophetically. The character Dylan reveals in his lyrics can be both smothering and depriving. He can deal in slavish success until something dies inside, and he can sell his freedom to alienation and distance. He has a history of grieving broken relationships, dating back at least to “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The line from “Tangled Up in Blue” which tells that the relationship split up on the docks echoes other breakups in his music: “I'm sailing away, my own true love” (“Boots of Spanish Leather”), or his mid-sixties farewell to Joan Baez and protest, “a table standing empty by the edge of the sea” (“Farewell Angelina”).

That interpersonal dimension is strikingly apparent in all the songs. Likewise, the inception of this whole series of images in a simple folk ballad, its conclusion in a more complex but similar form, and the references (common in Dylan's lyrics) to mythical or historical names and events like Diamond Jim, or the revolution and music mentioned in “Tangled Up in Blue” suggest the universality and socio-political dimension of the drama. The four characters struggle together like a Bicentennial America in the wealth of its cabaret existence, “tangled up” in the wiretaps of its paranoid insecurity, and trying to recover its prophetic and singing soul. All of Dylan's best poetry operates consistently on all three of these levels.

But the ripple reaching farthest from the rock songs Dylan has cast into the well of art is that which moves through his own soul, seeking only its own wholeness, and mirroring only the basic truth of all art, the eternal fascination of one man with his own heart.


  1. See Dylan's comment: “I discovered that when I used words like ‘he’ and ‘it’ and ‘they’ and putting down all sorts of people, I was really talking about no one but me. I went into Harding with that knowledge about all the stuff I was writing before then.” Quoted in Anthony Scaduto, Bob Dylan (New York: New American Library, 1973), p. 332.

  2. Jules Siegel, “Well, What Have We Here?” Saturday Evening Post (July 30, 1966), p. 34.

  3. Bob Dylan to Nat Hentoff, “Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan,” Playboy (March 1966), p. 140.

  4. Ibid., p. 139.

Stephen Scobie (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Scobie, Stephen. “The Text of Bob Dylan.” In Alias Bob Dylan, pp. 29-46. Red Deer College Press, Alberta, Canada: Red Deer College Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpted chapter, Scobie discusses the ways in which the meaning of Bob Dylan's songs can change, depending on the style and context in which they are presented.]


In April, 1987, Bob Dylan joined the Irish group U2 on stage in one of their concerts and sang ‘Knockin' on Heaven's Door’ with them. In the middle of the song, U2's lead singer, Bono, starts improvising a new verse: ‘Well, the time has come / For this wounded world to start changing. …’ Then he comments: ‘You know, I used to make up my own words to Bob Dylan songs. He says he doesn't mind.’ And Dylan responds: ‘Well, I do it too.’

The extent to which Bob Dylan has been willing to make up new words and new music to Bob Dylan songs poses another set of problems for the critic. If in the last chapter I was discussing the whole image and career of ‘Bob Dylan’ as a kind of text, I must turn in this chapter to the text of Bob Dylan: the words, the music, the performances, and the various forms in which these elements are available to us.

Traditional literary scholarship is always anxious to establish a definitive text, which will then be a stable and unchanging object of study. Researchers attempt to reconstitute from the flawed and incomplete printed versions of Shakespeare's plays what he ‘actually’ wrote. These arguments are usually phrased in terms of authorial intention: what did Shakespeare mean to write in this line? But since authors of this stature are assumed to be geniuses, there is always the temptation to argue that the ‘best’ line (or what the editor thinks is the best line) must surely be what the author intended. Thus accidental improvements in the text, caused by misprints or obscure handwriting, may be incorporated on the grounds that the more ordinary reading was ‘unworthy’ of this author. Editorial scholars also have to decide between early and late versions: is the first inspiration preferable to the later revision? Despite these problems, the aim remains unquestioned: the definitive text, the stable object of study.

For Dylan there is no definitive text. There is only a shifting body of work, in which the songs change with each performance and in which the printed text has a limited authority. Every time a critic quotes from a Dylan song, the quotation is in some way provisional, hedged around with qualifications. The purpose of this chapter is to set out some of these qualifications, so that they can then be understood to hover over every other set of quotation marks in this book.

It is often difficult for listeners to determine exactly what the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song are—he has never been noted for clear enunciation. I remember my amazement when I first saw a printed text of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and compared it with my notes of what I thought he'd been singing! All Across the Telegraph includes an amusing section of ‘reported mishearings’ (268-9), which range from the comic—Rosemary ‘took a cabbage into town’ (for ‘carriage’)—to the plausibly poetic—‘She's delicate and seems like veneer’ (for ‘the mirror’). One reason for these difficulties was that Dylan, like The Rolling Stones, never printed the song lyrics on the album jacket or sleeve, as if he were insisting that the words should be heard, even misheard, rather than read. It was not until Empire Burlesque in 1985 that printed words appeared as part of an album package.1

Of course, the words were published in other places—as sheet music, for instance—and many early songs appeared in magazines like Sing Out. But no major collection of Dylan lyrics was in print until Knopf brought out Writings and Drawings in 1973. This edition was then updated and reissued as Lyrics, 1962-1985, and it is this volume that has the best claim to be the definitive printed text of Dylan's songs.

But it's a very shaky claim. There are several ways in which Lyrics fails to be a definitive collection. In the first place it is drastically incomplete: Clinton Heylin lists the titles of 48 songs officially copyrighted by Dylan that are not included in Lyrics.2 Although most of these songs were unreleased at that time, several are of major importance: ‘Angelina,’ ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ ‘Foot of Pride,’ ‘Yonder Comes Sin’. …

Secondly, Lyrics prints only one version of each song. Given Dylan's habit of extensive rewriting, this cannot help but produce an incomplete picture. A good example is ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ released on Blood on the Tracks in 1975. This song has gone through many variations in its lyrics. During the 1978 tour Dylan changed the reference to ‘an Italian poet,’ substituting a series of chapter-and-verse Biblical citations, which seemed to be random and changed with every performance. For the 1984 tour he revised the lyrics much more thoroughly, and this new version was released on Real Live. In the sleeve notes to Biograph, Dylan commented, ‘On Real Live it's more like it should have been. … The imagery is better and more the way I would have liked it than on the original recording.’ Why then is it the 1975 version that is reissued on Biograph and the 1975 text that is printed in Lyrics? In cases like this, Lyrics could make a stronger claim to be a definitive text if it printed at least the 1984 version alongside the original text. (A scholarly edition of the variorum Bob Dylan text will eventually have to include all the 1978 Biblical citations as well.)

It is not that Lyrics sticks slavishly to the text of the original recordings. Far from it. Lyrics is full of revisions, from the occasionally altered word to the completely rewritten song. Whether these changes are always for the better is open to debate. On ‘Precious Angel,’ for instance, Dylan sings the marvelously sensuous and erotic lines ‘You're the queen of my flesh, girl, you're my woman, you're my delight, / You're the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night.’ Lyrics prints ‘you touch up the night’ (L 426). In other cases the rewriting is wholesale: ‘Goin' to Acapulco’ bears little resemblance to the text sung on The Basement Tapes, and the jokes in ‘I Shall Be Free’ have been extensively reworked despite the fact that Dylan has not sung the song in public since 1963.

And there are other annoyances. The order of songs is sometimes different from the order in which they appear on the albums; the Basement Tapes lyrics appear, illogically, neither at the date on which they were recorded nor at the date on which they were released. And so on. Lyrics, in other words, bears many signs of carelessness and incompletion, as if Dylan lacked interest in publishing a complete, properly edited, and definitive text. Yet at the same time it shows such extensive revisions that one can only conclude that it was put together with a good deal of attention and care.3

This divided response, that the book is both carefully considered and sloppily casual, is characteristic of the problems of Dylan's text. A similar division is apparent in many recordings, where some songs are tight, word-perfect performances and others are slipshod and hurried, with the mistakes and stumbles left in the released track rather than corrected in another take. (On Self-Portrait, for example, Dylan completely messes up one verse of ‘Days of '49’ and comments ‘Oh, my goodness’ audibly between verses.) In contrast to singers who spend weeks in the studio honing and perfecting their material, Dylan likes to move in and out of the studio as quickly as possible. The whole of Another Side of Bob Dylan was recorded in a single day: June 9, 1964. Occasionally, he has gone back and rerecorded songs, as he did for Blood on the Tracks, and recently he has allowed more elaborate studio productions, like Infidels and Oh Mercy. But to a great extent, he seems to have ignored the technical possibilities of modern recording studios and attempted to preserve the spontaneity and rough edges of live performance.4

At the same time it must be remembered that Dylan in the mid-1960s was at the technological front line. He was one of the first performers to use the full power of electronic amplification. What many people who heard Bob Dylan and the Hawks in 1965-66 reacted to most strongly, whether positively or negatively, was the sheer volume. Dylan has never rejected the technological capacities of his music, but he has never allowed himself to be dominated by them either. He has never become a fetishist for the perfect sound system or the flawless recording. In the same way, he has always shown disdain for the commercial and marketing aspects of his profession. He doesn't release the kind of albums his fans expect. In concert tours he ignores his most recent releases and doesn't even say ‘Hullo, it's nice to be here.’ Dylan has moved into the world of the mass media and its technological capitalism, but he continues to treat it as if it were a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village.

All this returns us to Lyrics. The book is presented as if it were what the fans and scholars might expect: the definitive collection, carefully edited, which would then be the reference point for all Bob Dylan studies. But this expectation is then subverted. Bob Dylan isn't interested in a definitive text any more than he is in becoming a model commercial rock star. Paul Williams describes the effect as ‘Dylan thumbing his nose at or trying to erase … his art even as he anthologizes it, still eating the document’ (229). But for all its imperfections Lyrics is still the best we've got. Most quotations in this book continue to use it as their source.

One other major way in which Lyrics is not definitive is simply that it is only the lyrics. The words presented in isolation from music and performance are as incomplete as a musical score or the script of a play. It is this incompletion which underscores the often-made distinction that Bob Dylan is not, strictly speaking, a poet: he is a songwriter.

Alone on the page, Dylan's words may seem flat or clumsy—but often enough it is precisely those ‘clumsy’ lines that work best in performance. In the printed lyrics the line ‘And you wouldn't know it would happen like this’ (L 239) seems prosaic and drab amidst the imagistic pyrotechnics of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’ Yet in performance it soars. ‘What Dylan “means” in a song,’ writes John Herdman,

is not always what the words say: the sense may be conveyed through the tensions between words, expression and musical mood. Dylan's voice does not just interpret his lyrics, it gives them life. His marvellous timing and breath-control, his capacity for drawing out lines almost to breaking-point, his emotional subtlety and inspired phrasing, make it one of his greatest artistic assets


Dylan's voice has, of course, been the subject of more abuse than praise. In a witty article for The Telegraph, Bert Cartwright assembled from twenty years of reviews and journalism the many and desperate metaphors with which critics have sought to describe it. It has been characterized as a whine, whether nasal or adenoidal, and as a growl, a howl, a croak, and a wail. It has been compared to a wide range of animals caught in barbed wire, to police sirens and acupuncture, and to ‘the death scream of a circular saw.’ Time claimed that ‘At its very best, his voice sounds as if it were drifting over the walls of a tuberculosis sanitarium—but that's part of the charm.’5

Rather than attempt to compete with such inspired imagery, I note that Dylan's voice, as part of Dylan's text, contributes to the general indeterminacy that I am describing. ‘Voice’ is often seen as a guarantee of individuality and authenticity: we say that an artist has ‘found his voice.’ But Dylan's voice changes, from record to record and from concert to concert. It offers no privileged access to a stable ‘I’ behind the songs; it too refuses the stamp of the definitive. Whether it is a growl or a whine, the smooth country inflections of Nashville Skyline or the hard, angry rasp of Highway 61 Revisited, it adjusts itself to the emotional needs of the song and the performance. Conventional musical notions of beauty or tunefulness are simply irrelevant: Dylan's voice is the most varied and expressive of the instruments he plays.

A simple proof of this may be found by listening to other singers performing Bob Dylan's songs. The songs themselves are so strong that these singers will often produce enjoyable versions,6 but very few if any are better than Dylan's own recordings. Perhaps only Jimi Hendrix, with ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ has succeeded in redefining a Dylan song.

Consideration of Dylan's vocal phrasing brings up one further and final problem in the printed Lyrics: that of lineation. How does the text indicate the pauses for line-breaks and rhymes? Dylan frequently weaves convoluted patterns of internal rhymes, or rhymes that distort the semantic pattern of the line-break. In ‘When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,’ the Lyrics text reads, ‘You will seek me and you'll find me / In the wasteland of your mind’ (L 496), whereas the spacing on the recording is clearly ‘You will seek me and you'll find / Me in the wasteland of your mind’—which may look awkward on the page but works well in performance because of the stressed alliteration of ‘me’ and ‘mind.’

Sometimes Dylan's phrasing cuts across the regular printed lines to such an extent that he produces an aural equivalent of free verse. For instance, these lines from ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ are printed as

With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold,
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.
.....No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own,
So go on your way accordingly
But know you're not alone

(L 256).

The recording on John Wesley Harding follows this line pattern faithfully enough. However, a transcription of the performance Dylan gave in London on October 17, 1987, might well be set out like this:

With a blanket under-
neath his arm
and a coat of
solid gold,
searching for the
very souls
whom already have been
.....No martyr is
among you now
that you can
call your own,
so go on your way a-
but know
you're not a-

Here the rhythmic pattern is closer to open-form verse, the kind of stress on unexpected line-breaks we might find in a poet like Robert Creeley or Denise Levertov. In this performance the voice is played as an instrument more interested in the rhythmic pattern than in the strict meaning of the words. It makes no sense to insert two major pauses in the middle of ‘accordingly,’ even if it does produce a nice pun on ‘chording.’ What it does do is illustrate what Dylan meant, as long ago as the sleeve notes to Highway 61 Revisited, when he wrote, ‘the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control’ (L 210).

Dylan has often been criticized for indulging in such ‘exercises,’ as if he should pay as much attention to the meaning of his words as his critics feel compelled to do. It seems somehow decadent to indulge in rhythmic frills when the song is about Important Topics like racial prejudice or nuclear war. But I think this criticism is misguided: its approach is a narrowly thematic one that sees form as mere decoration rather than a formal one that sees the musical effects as intrinsic to the content. Again, it reads Dylan's works as poems rather than songs.

The importance of the music in the Dylan text cannot be overstressed, but it is also very difficult to discuss. Some critics, such as Betsy Bowden and Wilfrid Mellers, have used technical musical vocabulary to describe shifts of key and modulations of rhythm, but in my view this approach has met with limited success. The effect of the music, though pervasive, can only partly be articulated; the music acts as ‘the unconscious of the text.’ This phrase comes from the French critic Catherine Clément. Although she is writing about the relation of words and music in opera, I believe that her account is also highly suggestive for song:

A double, inseparable scene: the words give rise to the music and the music develops the language, gives it dialect, envelops it, thwarts or reinforces it. Conscious and unconscious: the words are aligned with the legible, rational side of a conscious discourse, and the music is the unconscious of the text, that which gives it depth of field and relief, that which attributes a past to the text, a memory, one perceptible not to the listener's consciousness but to his enchanted unconsciousnesses


The music is the context within which the text lives: it allows the text to be, it justifies the text's existence. The music provides a rhythm, a beat, an emotional ambience. It does not have to ‘say’ anything itself; it just has to be there, in the background, on the threshold of the unconscious, like a ghost.

Clément says that the music may either ‘thwart’ or ‘reinforce’ the words. The music does not have to repeat or support the meaning of the words; it is equally capable of undermining the words or acting in ironic counterpart to them. In either event the meaning of the music will always modify what the words ostensibly say. In any art form the very act of creation is such a positive gesture that it tends to counteract even the most pessimistic and tragic world view. There is a kind of joy, even in King Lear or Guernica, at the affirmation of something being made. In music, with its strongly rhythmical effects, and with its sense of an implied community of listeners, this joy is always there. Leonard Cohen phrased it memorably in his novel The Favourite Game in a scene in which his hero listens to Pat Boone singing7:

I can tell you, people,

The news was not so good.

The news is great. The news is sad but it's in a song so it's not so bad


In song the news can never be completely bad. For Dylan the sheer joy of music-making has always been a major part of whatever meaning his songs may convey.

So the music can change the total effect of a song in different performances even if the words remain identical. No performance of a song ever stands alone—it is necessarily accompanied by the intertext of previous performances and the audience's awareness of the previous performances. For example, the rhythmic variation of the 1987 ‘St. Augustine’ plays with and against the audience's memory of the John Wesley Harding recording. It is only because of that memory that it can be understood as a variation in the first place.

Dylan has frequently explored the possibilities of varying the musical setting of his lyrics. In 19718 the single ‘George Jackson’ offered the same words in different settings on its A and B sides. The A side is sung solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica while the B side adds steel guitar, drums, and two backup singers. The A side is intense and angry, a protest against the defeat of George Jackson's death; the B side is solemn, hymnic, and unexpectedly tender, a celebration of the victory of George Jackson's life. The words do not change: but the music changes the meaning of the song. Further, the performance depends upon the audience's knowledge of Dylan's past. In 1971 the return to acoustic guitar and harmonica was a deliberate evocation (what semiotic critics would call a ‘coding’) of Dylan's early 1960s style of protest music. Increasingly, Dylan would work with the accumulation of his own history, weaving that context into the meaning of each performance.

Nowhere has this variability been more evident than in Dylan's evolving treatment of what is perhaps his most famous single song: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (L 191-2). The lyrics present a complex portrait of a character who has recently experienced a drastic reversal of fortune. I will call her ‘Miss Lonely’ (the only name the song attributes to her), but it should be borne in mind that the ‘you’ of a Dylan song is always a multiple other and that in some ways the addressee is also Bob Dylan himself, the audience, or even God. The words allow for a wide range of emotional response. They express anger and a certain amount of gloating at the woman's plight; the song has often been seen as primarily an act of revenge. But there is also a sense that Miss Lonely has liberated herself and that living ‘out on the street’ is greatly to be preferred to ‘the finest school.’ Paul Nelson saw the ending as ‘clearly optimistic and triumphant, a soaring of the spirit into a new and more productive present’ (McGregor 107). While there are negative connotations to being ‘on your own … without a home … with no direction home,’ there is also a sense of freedom, honesty, and self-reliance. Dylan's whole musical career up to 1965, especially his inheritance of the Woody Guthrie tradition, would suggest that to be ‘like a rolling stone’ is a far from undesirable destiny. Each verse builds up to the climactic moment of release on ‘How does it feel?’—it is the pattern of male sexual orgasm or, more learnedly, of Aristotelian catharsis. But the question has no simple answer, as I hope to show with a survey of six selected performances (selected out of the dozens if not hundreds of times Dylan has performed the song over twenty-five years).

The original recording, June 15, 1965, already reflects the range of possibilities. At the time it seemed like a vitriolic performance, but in retrospect Dylan's voice sounds almost mellow. He is fully involved here with the characterization: this version is about Miss Lonely in ways that few of the later versions would be. (Or indeed could be: inevitably, every subsequent performance is about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; that is, about itself and the song's history.) The band drives hard and direct toward the climax of ‘How does it feel?’, but Al Kooper's organ track (added, so legend has it, almost by accident) hints at more hymnic and celebratory moods. It remains a great rock 'n' roll recording and as close to a definitive performance as one can ever get with Dylan; it also remains the touchstone from which all subsequent variations will derive their meaning.

Perhaps the most famous bootleg recording of Dylan features ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ It dates from Manchester Free Trade Hall, May 17, 1966. The audiences on this tour were openly hostile to Dylan's electric music, which they chose to see as a betrayal of folk music purity. Someone in the crowd yells out ‘Judas!’, and there is a smattering of applause and embarrassed laughter. ‘I don't believe you,’ Dylan says, ironically quoting the title of one of his acoustic songs recently translated into an electric arrangement. ‘You're a liar!’ Then he steps back from the microphone and shouts (barely audible on the tape) ‘You're a fucking liar!’—whereupon The Hawks slam in with the opening chords of ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ There is no doubt about the mood of this version: it's pure venom. The anger, however, is directed not at the character, Miss Lonely, but at the audience—and by extension at all the audiences who for the past year had been reacting with such incomprehension to the changes in Dylan's art. The vocal is pitched much higher than on the original recording, and it seems right on the edge of control. The band is dominated by pounding and obtrusive drums, but Robbie Robertson's guitar matches the agony of Dylan's voice.

Three years later, the performance at the Isle of Wight, August 31, 1969, took place in a completely different context. It was Dylan's first major concert appearance since his withdrawal into seclusion in 1966, and it was to be his last until he resumed touring in 1974. As might be expected, he and The Band were under-rehearsed, and the version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is, to put it mildly, a mess. A genial mess, though. Dylan sings in long tumbling runs that slide down the scale like waterfalls. In the second verse he forgets the words and sings the same line three times, his mumble retreating into deeper obscurity than ever. No attempt is made to build up to ‘How does it feel?’ Two points need to be made about this performance. First, it in no way displaces or annuls the original. Indeed, it works only with reference to the original; Dylan is relying on his audience's familiarity with the song. Hey, he's saying, it's no big deal; it's just a song, not a way of life. We can have fun with it too. And secondly, Dylan chose to release this version officially as part of Self-Portrait. In that context it participates in the remarkable deconstruction of his image that is that album's ironic project. No other song could have made the point quite as forcefully.

When Dylan resumed touring in 1974, his relationship with his audience was very different from what it had been eight years previously. Now the concerts were a celebration of the times he and they had been through together. The political context of Watergate gave new emphasis to lines like ‘even the President of the United States / Sometimes must have / To stand naked’ (L 177). As is evident in the version released on Before the Flood, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ became the climax of this celebration. The voice now stressed the liberation rather than the put-down, and the dominant instrument was Garth Hudson's organ, whose rolling five-note phrase after each line of the chorus transformed the song into an anthem. The answer to ‘How does it feel?’ was unequivocal: it feels great. Welcome back, Bob. It feels wonderful.

By 1980-81 the context had changed again. In his first concerts after his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity, Dylan had resolutely played only the new religious songs. When he began to reintroduce older songs into the act, one of the first was ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ In the new context, Miss Lonely became a lost soul who had missed her true ‘direction home’ to Christ.9 All anger had been replaced by Christian compassion and forgiveness. Dylan's voice was mournful and sympathetic, and the music had become, quite literally, more tuneful. Whereas the lines of the verse in previous versions had been sung as long runs on a single note with only a few embellishments, this version has a complex and lovely melody carefully worked out and sustained through all four verses.

In 1988, working with the trio led by G.E. Smith on guitar, Dylan attempted ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ without keyboards for the first time. The arrangement is thoroughly reworked: there is an instrumental bridge passage before the last verse, and Smith takes long guitar solos. In many ways this rendition has returned more closely to the 1965 original than any of the intermediaries: the 1988 ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a straight-ahead rock song, which once again balances between the anger of the personal attack, the liberation of the chorus, and the joy of its own music.

So what is the text of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’? It is surely the accumulation of all performances, the song's total history. The text is not a fixed set of words or music but a fluid space, a performance area, which sets out a musical and thematic field within which any one version can only be provisional. Dylan minimizes the importance of a stable text as product and maximizes the importance of the process of singing or listening.

Of course, Dylan is also willing to change the words of a song as well as the music. As an example let me look at three different versions of ‘Going, Going, Gone. This song first appeared on Planet Waves (1974), an album largely devoted to songs celebrating married love. It depicts a singer who has reached some extreme point, ‘the top of the end’ (L 342), which may be religious, political, psychological, or emotional. The context of the album suggests that this too is a love song, an interpretation which is reinforced by the bridge passage:

Grandma said, ‘Boy, go and follow your heart
And you'll be fine at the end of the line.
All that's gold doesn't shine.
Don't you and your one true love ever part.’

‘Grandma’ implies a traditional source of proverbial wisdom, so the possible naiveté of the advice is distanced through the imputed speaker. Moreover, the proverb—‘All that glisters isn't gold’—is reversed, a technique that was characteristic of Dylan's writing in this period.

Two years later Dylan returned to the song during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. By this time the love relationships being depicted in Dylan's songs were strained and on the point of collapse. This version opens with the same verse as the original but follows it with a completely new one:

I'm in love with you, baby,
But you got to understand
That you want to be free,
So let go of my hand.

The separation is here attributed to the woman's desire ‘to be free,’ a desire that she herself still has to ‘understand.’ The onus is on her to leave him. Another new verse follows:

I was living on the road
With my head in the dust,
So I've just got to go
Before it's all diamonds and rust.

Now it is the man who feels that it's up to him to leave. If the song is to be interpreted biographically, in relation to the breakup of Dylan's marriage to Sara, the level of personal reference is complicated here by the phrase ‘diamonds and rust’—which was the title of a song that Joan Baez wrote about her relationship to Bob Dylan. At the time of this performance, both Sara Dylan and Joan Baez were on the Rolling Thunder tour and engaged in the filming of Renaldo and Clara.

In this version the bridge passage runs:

Papa says, ‘Son, go and follow your heart
And you'll be fine at the end of the line.
All that's gold isn't meant to shine.
Don't you and your life-long dream ever part.’

‘Grandma’ has been replaced as the source of conventional wisdom by ‘Papa,’ a switch that is in keeping with Dylan's obsession at this time with the figure of the dying father. Now the gold not only ‘doesn't shine,’ it isn't even ‘meant to shine’ (this is the version of the line printed in Lyrics), and the ‘one true love’ becomes the more desperate but less specific ‘life-long dream.’

A third version appears on the 1978 album Bob Dylan at Budokan, and it gives us a completely new set of words:

Well, I just reached a place
Where I can't stay awake.
I've got to leave you, baby,
Before my heart will break
.....Now from Boston to Birmingham
Is a two-day ride,
But I got to be goin' now
'cos I'm so dissatisfied.

This version, with its long, drawn-out repetition of the final chorus, is fully committed to separation, and the wish to go is now unequivocally on the man's side. Biographical speculation would point out that this version comes after the divorce from Sara; there is also the curious point that the Baez reference has been replaced by an oblique one to Emmylou Harris, backup singer on Desire, and author of the song “From Boulder to Birmingham.” The bridge passage finds a woman back in the advice-giving role:

Now my Mama always said, ‘Go and follow your heart
And you'll be fine to the end of the line.
All that's gold wasn't meant to shine

—‘wasn't’ now, the relationship firmly relegated to the past tense—

Just don't put your horse in front of your cart.’

This brilliant last line does at least three things. It reverses a cliché, which now advises against conventional arrangements such as marriage. It comments by omission on the naive expectations of the previous versions that the singer and his one true love/life-long dream would never part. And it is a joke shared with the audience by playing its outrageousness against their memories of previous versions.

Not all of Dylan's revisions have been as drastic as those to “Going, Going, Gone.” Often he will change only a single line or image. Sometimes the changes may be no more than passing jokes in performance. For instance, in “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” the lines ‘Mama, put my guns in the ground / I can't shoot them anymore’ (L 337) appeared on one occasion as ‘Mama, put my guns right into the ground / I can't screw them down the floor’ (Milan, June 19, 1989).

At other times the rewriting is the result of a protracted effort to get the song right, as Dylan shows in his comments about “Caribbean Wind” on the Biograph sleeve notes:

Sometimes you'll write something to be very inspired, and you won't quite finish it for one reason or another. Then you'll go back and try and pick it up, and the inspiration is just gone. Either you get it all, and you can leave a few little pieces to fill in, or you're always trying to finish it off. Then it's a struggle. The inspiration's gone and you can't remember why you started it in the first place. Frustration sets in. I think there's four different sets of lyrics to this, maybe I got it right, I don't know. I had to leave it. I just dropped it.

While this comment simply describes the process of revision that any artist goes through, in Bob Dylan's case the process takes place at least partly in public. One of the ‘four different sets of lyrics’ to “Caribbean Wind” was performed in concert (San Francisco, November 12, 1980) and is available on tape. Again the critic faces the problem of the indeterminacy of the Dylan text. “Caribbean Wind” has no definitive set of words. The listener has the opportunity of judging between two versions (and I personally cannot say which I prefer).

It seems safe to say that Dylan never regards a song as unalterably finished. At any time he is prepared to come back and rework the lyrics or the music—and equally, he may abandon these revisions and return to the ‘original’ text. But his continuing commitment to the performance and reinterpretation of his old songs means that the text is never definitively closed.

Paul Williams, the most perceptive critic of Dylan as a performer, sums up much of the argument I have been making when he writes:

Listening to these unreleased alternate takes is a reminder that when Dylan is fully involved in the music he's making, every performance of every song is new and different and exciting. The music is so fluid, so expressive of what Dylan is feeling moment to moment, that it would be misleading to suggest that one melodic or rhythmic or lyrical variant is more true to the song's intention than another. That assumes a specific intent that precedes the writing and performing of a song, whereas all the evidence is that Dylan's songs … express a constantly shifting intent which is feeling-based and unconscious at least as much as it is deliberate, conscious, premeditated


This discussion brings us to the question of bootlegs. Many of the performances I have cited—the Manchester version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ the Rolling Thunder version of ‘Going, Going, Gone,’ the San Francisco recording of ‘Caribbean Wind’—are not officially released. Rather, they circulate as unofficial, bootleg tapes.

The first widely circulated Bob Dylan bootleg was the so-called Great White Wonder, which came out in 1969. It was a haphazard double-album collection of recordings from the early years of Dylan's career, often of other people's songs, and from the ‘Basement Tapes’ recorded with The Band in Woodstock. Sound quality was generally poor, and the album took its name from the complete lack of sleeve notes, illustrations, or even track listings.

In the twenty years since, bootlegging has become a more sophisticated enterprise. Sound quality has greatly improved, and the sheer amount of underground Dylan material in circulation is staggering. Bootleg Dylan falls into two major categories: studio outtakes and concert recordings. Studio outtakes consist of songs recorded in studios, usually during the sessions that produce official albums. They thus may include alternate versions of songs that do appear on the albums, with different words and/or music, and also songs that for one reason or another were not released. Concert recordings are tapes made of live performances, usually by audience members carrying concealed microphones, though occasionally by direct tap out of the soundboard. Clinton Heylin reports that out of 485 live Dylan shows between 1974 and 1987 there are only 27 for which no known tape exists (407). The tours of 1988-90 have been even more thoroughly documented.

Why is Dylan bootlegged on a scale vastly greater than that of any other pop performer? The answer has to include the semimythical status that Dylan attained in the early 1960s and that he has never lost over the years. Consciously or unconsciously, he has cultivated an air of mystery. His most trivial statements take on an oracular status. Great White Wonder appeared when Dylan was in seclusion; his very secretiveness fed the desire for hidden Dylan songs. Even in recent years, when he has been touring almost constantly, the fear that he might again lapse into silence has given his performances a scarcity value.

This is paradoxical, for Dylan bootlegs are anything but scarce. Indeed, the main reason for their persistence is simply that so much interesting material is available. Again the variability of the Dylan text comes into play. There would be little point in taping 485 live shows from most pop singers, because they vary their songs so little in performance: one concert is pretty much a carbon copy of any other. But no two Dylan shows, even on consecutive nights, are ever quite the same. Even a survey as cursory as my six selected performances of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ shows the range and richness of the concert material.

With the studio outtakes there is the even more interesting problem that Dylan has chosen not to release much of his best work. Many unreleased songs circulated widely in bootleg before they were finally officially released. Biograph (1985) made available such major titles as ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ and ‘Caribbean Wind.’ The 1991 release of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 has at last added ‘Farewell Angelina,’ ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ and many more. (The release of this collection will—not before time—render half the bootleg industry obsolete.) The words for some of these songs appear in Lyrics, but as noted, several of them are not acknowledged even there.

What is the critic to do with this material? To begin with, certain legal questions arise. These are, after all, illegal recordings. Some bootleggers undoubtedly make money, though my experience has been that the people I am in touch with do not sell tapes but exchange them freely, and are collectors who will buy everything that Dylan officially releases. Bob Dylan has suffered no financial loss from any of the people I am in touch with. Many such collectors object strongly to the term ‘bootleg,’ which implies sale for profit. They take their motto from Dylan himself: ‘To live outside the law, you must be honest’ (L 233). Before publishing this book I obtained permission from Dylan's agent for all quotations used.

There is an ethical problem too. One may argue that the work has a right to be heard that supersedes the author's right to control his creations—but who is to make this decision? As a critic using rejected material, I am setting myself up to second-guess and judge Bob Dylan's editorial choices. While critics regularly do this when sifting through the manuscripts of a dead author, it is rarely that we have the chance to do so while the author is still alive. Sometimes, of course, I agree with Dylan's decisions: I would not want to see the embarrassing ‘Julius and Ethel’ included on Infidels, and the 1970 recordings of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ are strictly for fanatics only.

In other cases, however, I have to assert my critical judgment that Dylan has been drastically wrong in the choices he made. Shot of Love (1981) is often seen as one of his weakest albums: but if you add in its outtakes—‘Angelina,’ ‘Caribbean Wind,’ and ‘The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar’—the assessment is dramatically changed. As I will argue in Chapter Seven, these three songs present a fascinating mixture of surrealist and Christian imagery, and they show Dylan's verbal art reemerging from the straightjacket of fundamentalist rhetoric. Dylan may have felt that they were unresolved or imperfect: yet their very incompletion makes them more interesting artistic objects than the smooth banalities of ‘Watered-Down Love’ or ‘In the Summertime,’ which did make it to the album.

The more one explores the bootleg material, the more such questions arise. By what right of authorship could one justify withholding release of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” for twenty years? Why were we never meant to hear “She's Your Lover Now”? Whatever possessed him to suppress “Blind Willie McTell” for so long?

Such questions challenge the privileged position of the author as the ultimate source and arbiter of his work. They point to another way in which the text has escaped the author's jurisdiction and control. This excess of the text over the author, evident in its most concrete form in the bootlegs, is also what I have been arguing all the way through this chapter: that the Dylan text is indeterminate, nondefinitive, divided against itself and away from its author. In this sense ‘the text of Bob Dylan’ rejoins ‘Bob Dylan as text’: the songs in all their manifestations are only part of the total text, which also includes the biography, the interviews, and all the phenomena of Bob Dylan's public career (phenomena that include the assiduous wielders of concealed microphones at every concert). This is a text that remains open: a disseminated text that gives no guarantee of any unitary self originating it. In all their indeterminacy, Bob Dylan's songs only show in another aspect the split between I and I. The text too proclaims, in every moment of its performance, ‘Je est un autre.’


  1. Printed lyrics did appear in Bob Dylan at Budokan (1978), but this album was initially intended for Japanese release only. The lyrics are also printed on the sleeve of Under the Red Sky (1990).

  2. See Clinton Heylin, ‘Lyrics 1962-1985: A Collection Short of the Definitive,’ in All Across the Telegraph, 229-242. The lists of omitted songs are also published in Heylin's Stolen Moments, 395-397.

  3. Such considerations inevitably raise the question of the extent to which Lyrics presents an ‘authorized’ text. Can we be sure that Dylan made all these changes, or could they be the result of editorial decisions by other people? Researching this point for a Ph.D. dissertation, Craig Snow reports: ‘Martha Kaplan, who worked on Writings and Drawings and Lyrics 1962-1985 as an editor with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the publisher of both books, told me in a phone interview that “all material” came from Dylan and that the editors at Knopf dealt with him as they would with any author. Pressed further, she clarified her contention, pointing out that the material for the two books came “from [Dylan's] office,” but the editors did not alter the text of the lyrics’ (49). This still leaves open the possibility that someone else ‘from [Dylan's] office’ made editorial changes—but the likelihood is that the oddities of the Lyrics text can be attributed to Dylan himself.

  4. Conversely, he has often chosen to release on official albums some less successful live performances. The Dylan and the Dead live album, for instance, contains a performance of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ in which Dylan forgets the words and stumbles through one verse, whereas other concerts from the same tour features the same song with no errors.

  5. These examples are drawn from Bert Cartwright, ‘Like a Dead Man's Last Pistol Shot?’ The Telegraph 29 (Spring, 1988), 109-114. More recently, Christopher Tookey wrote that ‘the voice—which seemed, confusingly, to be singing in Iranian—was definitely either his, or that of a very old Ayatollah who had recently sandpapered his vocal cords’ (London Daily Telegraph, June 9, 1989).

  6. For a good collection of cover versions, listen to The Songs of Bob Dylan, compiled by Michael Gray and Iain McLay, Start Records STDL 20 (1989). Among the better tracks on this album are ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ by Elvis Presley; ‘Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues’ by Judy Collins; ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ by Jason and the Scorchers; ‘This Wheel's On Fire’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees; ‘Seven Days’ by Ron Wood; etc. The album does not include any translations of Dylan songs, but there are many of these, notably Dionysos Savopoulos's wonderful Greek version of ‘All Along the Watchtower.’

  7. The song Boone sings is ‘I Almost Lost My Mind,’ by Ivory Joe Hunter. Cohen also quotes the lines ‘I went to see a gypsy / And had my fortune read,’ which Dylan later adapted for his intertextual tribute to Elvis Presley, ‘Went To See the Gypsy’ (L 288).

  8. Several other recordings of the early 1970s show similar effects: two takes of ‘Forever Young’ on Planet Waves, for example, and on Self-Portrait, two versions of ‘Alberta’ as well as of ‘Little Sadie.’ In the latter case, the very rough, emotionally expressive version, which pays a lot of attention to the meaning of the words, is entitled ‘In Search of Little Sadie,’ whereas the much smoother, jauntier take, in which the tragic narrative becomes merely the excuse for a cheery piece of music-making, has the title of ‘Little Sadie.’

  9. Similarly, when Dylan at this time sang ‘It Ain't Me, Babe’ (L 144), the context clearly implied that it ain't me you're looking for, babe—it's Him.

Works Cited

All Across the Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook. Edited by Michael Gray and John Bauldie. Introduction by Bob Willis. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987.

Bowden, Betsy. Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Cartwright, Bert. ‘Like a Dead Man's Last Pistol Shot?’ The Telegraph 29 (Spring 1988): 109-114.

Clément, Catherine. Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Translated by Betsy Wing. Foreword by Susan McClary. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Cohen, Leonard. The Favourite Game. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Heylin, Clinton. Stolen Moments: The Ultimate Reference Book. Romford: Wanted Man, 1988.

McGregor, Craig, ed. Bob Dylan: A Retrospective. New York: William Morrow, 1972; revised edition, Da Capo, 1990. Page references are to the original edition.

Mellers, Wilfrid. A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Snow, Craig. Folksinger and Beat Poet: The Prophetic Vision of Bob Dylan. Ph.D. Dissertation, Purdue U, 1987.

Williams, Paul. Performing Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan. Volume One, 1960-1973. Novato, California, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Underwood-Miller, 1990.

Ron Klier (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Klier, Ron. “Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and the Anxiety of Influence.” The Midwest Quarterly 40, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 334-50.

[In the following essay, Klier describes Bob Dylan as the most recent in a line of popular American poets, from Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie, who are “singers of democracy.”]

Hank Lazer has written that “because of the range, ambition, freedom, and magnitude of Walt Whitman's work, as well as the attractive model of Whitman's persistence as a poet, it is to be expected that nearly every contemporary poet of some stature will, at one time or another, bow respectfully to Walt Whitman's direction” (1). In “Walt Whitman: American Prophet-Singers and Their People,” Richard Pascal extends Whitman's influence into the world of popular music, and more specifically, into the world of Woody Guthrie.

Pascal insists that “the prevalence of Whitmanesque ideas, attitudes, and imagery throughout Guthrie's work leaves little doubt that the influence was more than indirect, casual, or loosely stylistic” (43-44). In fact, he suggests that Guthrie suffered from “good humored Bloomian anxiety,” an anxiety that actor and longtime Guthrie friend, Will Geer, echoed when he wrote: “It's fun to scramble Woody and Whitman up together on the subject of love or ecology” (Pascal, 43; Geer, 14).

Pascal's is a compelling argument, but he errs when he incorrectly concludes that of all poets, Guthrie “came nearest to achieving something like the mass appeal which Whitman coveted” (43-44). Pascal neglects to trace his own line of Whitmanian influence from Guthrie to Bob Dylan, the line's logical end.

Of course, poetically speaking, there can never be a true end. Great poets inspire others to create poetry. And a few, a very few, of those inspired achieve similar greatness in their work. But as a qualifier greatness should be used sparingly. Walt Whitman is a great poet, perhaps America's greatest. Guthrie, too, is great, with some, like Alan Lomax, arguing that “no modern American poet or folk singer has made a more significant contribution to our culture” (Gray, 14). And, when speaking of great contemporary poets, Bob Dylan should not be excluded. He changed the face of American music forever. He, as Betsy Bowden has written, “brought poetry into rock lyrics—imagery replacing the inanity common in the fifties and allowing room for the even more cerebral lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel or of Jim Morrison” (197-98).

Some might argue then that Dylan is not this poetic line's end, that that title belongs to someone else, someone he inspired, someone like Morrison, or maybe Bruce Springsteen, who was hailed early in his career as “the next Bob Dylan” (Elian, 78). But neither Morrison or Springsteen deserve that title. Both are fine musicians and lyricists, but they lack the intangibles, those qualities that allowed Dylan, like Guthrie and like Whitman before him, to shape an entire generation. In short, they lack greatness. In a sentence, Dave Marsh sums up what it means to be great. He says, “Without Woody Guthrie, there could have been no Bob Dylan, and without Bob Dylan, no popular music as we understand it today” (xxii). Can the same be said for Morrison or Springsteen?

Unquestionably, Guthrie's life and work had a profound impact on Dylan. No one can argue that. Many, like Wilfrid Mellers, contend that Guthrie “decisively awoke that young Dylan to the verities of an America alienated, persecuted and dispossessed” (119). And in “A Song to Woody,” Dylan's own words suggest just that:

Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
‘Bout a funny ol' world that's a-comin' along.
Seems sick an' it's hungry, it's fired an' it's torn,
It looks like its a-dyin' an' it's hardly been born.
Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I'm a-sayin' an' a-many times more.
I'm a-singin' you the song, but I can't sing enough,
'Cause there's not many men that done the things that you've done.

(Dylan, 6)

Wayne Hampton, who chronicles Guthrie's influence on Dylan in Guerilla Minstrels, argues that Dylan constructed the present “pop music culture … almost single-handedly … from the ashes of the Woody Guthrie cultural tradition”—a tradition that began with Walt Whitman (145).

Walt Whitman has been linked with poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich. Roy Harvey Pearce insists that this is inevitable. He believes that

the history of American poetry could be written as the continuing discovery and rediscovery of Whitman, an ongoing affirmation of his crucial relevance to the mission of the American poet: which is, as it is everywhere, simply to tell us the truth in such a way that it will be a new truth, and in its newness will renew us and our capacity to have faith in ourselves, only then together to try to build the sort of world which will have that faith as its necessary condition.


Guthrie and Dylan sought this sort of truth in their songs, and yet, for the most part, very few critics have linked either to Whitman. Why? Perhaps, as Mellers suggests, “oral art is, of its nature, resistant to commentary and analysis,” and literary scholars, realizing this the case, shy away (31). But more than likely, Pascal is correct when he attributes critical neglect to “a lingering academic bias against the study of popular culture in general and of song lyrics in particular” (42).

And that simply does not make sense. Whitman believed that the poet's “spirit responds to his country's spirit,” that he or she is to be “commensurate with the people” (Cowley, 7, 6). In the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass he wrote that “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (Cowley, 24). If so, then most traditional or academic poets fall short of being true poets, leaving only Guthrie, Dylan, and others like them as proven poets, as Whitmanian poets.

Christopher Beach writes that “for Whitman, a culturally elitist literature that rejects the ‘vulgarity’ of everyday life implies a concomitant embrace of hierarchical, even monarchic political exclusivity” (74). And because, as Harold Bloom suggests, Whitman was and is “voice in our poetry,” American poetry, Whitman represents our spirit, the democratic spirit (“Whitman's Image of Voice,” 129).

The same can be said for Dylan and Guthrie. They embody what Whitman foresaw as “the poetry of the future” (Kaplan, 1021). They fulfill the prophecy he made in Democratic Vistas:

the possibility, should some two or three really original American poets … arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities … together they would give more compaction and more moral identity to these states, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.

(Kaplan, 935)

In some sense, a direct line of poetic descent can be drawn from Whitman to Guthrie to Dylan—a line more distinct than any drawn in Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. Bloom sees Wallace Stevens as Whitman's rightful heir, though he later recants, venturing that Stevens “may not be the culmination of Whitman's poetics, since that begins to seem the peculiar distinction of John Ashbery” (Agon, 183). Although Bloom formulates an intriguing, even applicable poetic hypothesis, the familial distinction he speaks of, if one subscribes to Whitman's own perception of poets and poetry, belongs to Guthrie and Dylan, not Stevens and Ashbery.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom reasons that “we can never embrace a single person, but embrace the whole of his or her family romance, so we can never read a poet without reading the whole of his or her family romance as a poet” (94). Within this family romance, he says that there exist “strong” and “weak” poets. Strong poets create exceptional poems and “make history” by imitating, and, in some cases, “misreading” other strong poets. Weak poets “idealize” and are incapable of the aggression necessary to clear “imaginative space” (5). Bloom's theory is an overtly masculine, even pugilistic way to analyze poetry, and yet it works well with Whitman, who writes: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” (Cowley, 81).

Hampton believes that the works of Guthrie and Dylan reflect this anxiety. But he views influence in terms of “hero-worship.” To him, the hero is a “seer, one who is gifted with the ability to comprehend the reality behind the facade” (5). He believes that heroes spawn subsequent heroes. Ironically, Guthrie resisted (and Dylan still resists) any notions of himself as a hero. Like Whitman, their poetic progenitor, both understand that whether “a thief, or diseased, or rheumatic, or a prostitute,” all are equal and “immortal” (Cowley, 88). In the poem “11 Outlined Epitaphs” Dylan relates how he learned this, the key lesson in “the book of Man:”

Woody Guthrie was my last idol
he was the last idol
because he was the first idol
I'd ever met
that taught me
face t'face
that men are men
shatterin' even himself
as an idol.

(Dylan, 111)

Hero-worship is a misleading term. Though these three poets share a common ideology, as in any familiar relationship, tension exists, sometimes even dominates. This tension results in the sort of “misreading” that Bloom believes propels creative thought. For example, Whitman was fond of catalogues, of sweeping, panoramic portraits of America. And at times, as in “Song of Myself,” he seems to compose these catalogues spontaneously:

The coon-seekers go now through the regions of the Red river, or through those drained by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
The torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahoochee or Altamahaw;
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great grandsons around them,
In walls of adobe, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day's sport.

(Cowley, 39)

Guthrie identified with these catalogues. Joe Klein even argues that he wrote with “the unspoken assumption that he could cram the whole country into his songs; the belief—like Whitman's—that he could say what America was” (203). And whether or not Klein is correct, Guthrie certainly imitates Whitman's cataloguing, particularly in his notebooks and journals:

United Fence Erectors.
Busty barrels along wall of factory.
Fire is a good servant and a bad master
National enameling and stamping company
Budweiser Beer Brewery
home home home home home home (new houses)
Courtney Vs. Green for governor.
No man in this world looks at you like a railroad conductor.
Grab your baggage
And hold your seat
I'm selling sandwiches
That Jesus couldn't eat.
I believe that I could be a better poet than Walt Whitman if only I didn't have four children to support.

(Klein, 293)

The mimicry is obvious, but so is the fact that Guthrie, a strong poet, consciously wrestled with his understanding of and appreciation for Whitman's poetic. The final line, however comic, hints at the underlying bitterness he felt toward Whitman and his looming talent.

Dylan also uses catalogues in his songs and poems. But the America he “crams” into his work is a very different America from Whitman's, or even Guthrie's. He shows this difference most in the very surreal, apocalyptic lyrics found in “Desolation Row”:

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

(Dylan, 204)

Dylan (like Whitman and Guthrie) uses catalogues to capture the American experience in vivid images and sense impressions. Hampton insists, and the same might be said for Whitman, that Dylan and Guthrie's understanding of America is rooted in an intense desire to connect with the working class. He admits that their “working classness” cannot be “found in their social origins or their economic stations in life but in their social consciousness, their political idealism, and their dedication to some form of change” (8).

Beach contends that Whitman's poetic is “predicated on equality rather than class distinction, on participation rather than exclusion, and on biological standards rather than sociocultural ones” (74). Whitman's words support this. He identifies himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs” (Cowley, 48). And in “I Hear America Singing” he attempts a spiritual merger with the working class:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodius songs.

(Murphy, 47)

Whitman believes the American worker capable of great songs and poetry. And

in “The Song of the Answerer,” he emphasizes this point, implying that there is poetry in all occupations, in all things:

You think it would be good to be the writer of melodious verses,
Well it would be good to be the writer of melodious verses;
But what are verses beyond the flowing character you could have?

(Cowley, 132)

In 1965, Dylan echoed Whitman, asking “Everybody who writes poems do you call them a poet?” He added, “There's a certain kind of rhythm in some kind of way that's visible. You don't necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they're poets” (Ephron and Edmiston, 84).

This ideology drives Dylan's work. His poems exhibit an affinity towards the working class. In fact, in many of his songs he identifies not only with the American worker, but the American downtrodden, those that society has forgotten or pushed aside. In “I Am a Lonesome Hobo” he writes:

I am a lonesome hobo
Without family or friends,
Where another man's life might begin,
That's exactly where mine ends.

(Dylan, 260)

In “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song in which Mellers believes Dylan is “putting himself down,” the speaker condemns Miss Lonely's conceit and self-righteous behavior (141). He chastises her for the distance she puts between herself and “everybody that was hangin' out,” confident that her vanity will ruin her:

You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find you're gonna have to get used to it

(Dylan, 191)

Dylan derives this working classness directly from his poetic father, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie believed that “you don't know the American people till you know their troubles,” and his songs incorporate that belief (Leventhal and Guthrie, 159). Like Dylan and Whitman, he speaks for the working class, a class he deeply admires. In 1940, Guthrie praised working America in a letter. He wrote, “It is people like you migratory workers and work hunters that make the human race a greater race, and it is a race, and you will win and also save that race” (Guthrie and Leventhal, 88). And in “Dust Bowl Refugee” Guthrie actually assumes the migrant worker persona:

Yes, we ramble and we roam,
And the highway, that's our home.
It's a never-ending highway
For a dust bowl refugee.
Yes, we wander and we work
In your crops and in your fruit.
Like the whirlwinds in the desert,
That's the dust bowl refugees.

(Guthrie and Leventhal, 88)

In his most famous song “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthtie attempts what Whitman attempted in “I Hear America Singing.” That is, as Hampton suggests, Guthrie tries “to reclaim [in song] America for the working class.” Of course, Guthrie's original intentions have since been distorted, and all that remains of the song is its “sentimental nationalism” (Hampton, 135). But the song's last two stanzas, though rarely sung now, still suggest a singular defiance, that proud, working class voice:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

(Guthrie and Leventhal, 225)

Dylan, emerging from the Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie poetic tradition, at times takes his art outside the working class, beyond American borders even, as in “Neighborhood Bully.” In “Neighborhood Bully” he tackles issues like land rights and national sovereignty, complicated issues plaguing Israel and the Middle East to this day:

Well, he's surrounded by pacifists who all want peace,
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease.
Now, they wouldn't hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep.
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep.
He's the neighborhood bully.
Every empire that's enslaved him is gone,
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon.
He's made a garden of paradise in the desert sand,
In bed with nobody, under no one's command.
He's the neighborhood bully.

(Dylan, 476-77)

But war and territorial conflicts are not unique to the Middle East or even to the modern era. They are universals and Dylan is free to work within them largely because Guthrie and Whitman have already delved extensively into the American character, proving that “here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations” (Cowley, 6). Dylan has a luxury denied Whitman and Guthrie, the luxury of assuming that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” (Cowley, 6). He can set out to capture with words not only what makes us American, but what makes us human.

Of course, in essence, all three poets champion humanity. They simply focus most on the working class because they are enamored with the rugged independence characteristic of that class. They recognize the difficult decisions and life choices that they, and all men and women, inevitably face. Whitman believes these decisions constitute the “perpetual journey” we must “tramp” (Cowley, 79). He envisions our lives and decisions a part of a single, enduring road:

My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

(Cowley, 80)

Not surprisingly, Guthrie also uses the road metaphor and the centuries-old journey motif in much of his poetry and music, most notably in “Going Down the Road:”

I'm blowin' down this old dusty road;
Yes, I'm blowin' down this old dusty road;
I'm blowin' down this old dusty road, Lord, God,
And I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way.
I'm going where the water tastes like wine;
Yes, I'm going where the water tastes like wine;
I'm going where the water tastes like wine, Lord, God,
And I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way.

(Guthrie and Leventhal, 104-5)

Here, while the speaker accepts his position on the road, he will not be mistreated. The song is hopeful. A Garden of Eden, a place of promise, a land where “the water tastes like wine,” lies at the end of this road. Dylan's take on the road varies only slightly:

'Cause the road is long, it's a long hard climb
I been on that road too long of a time
Yes the road is long, and it winds and winds
When I think of the love I left behind.

(Dylan, 415)

Pascal suggests that Whitman and Guthrie (and the same can be said for Dylan) use similar metaphors because they seek similar ends. He claims both see themselves as “prophet-singers,” as creators of “an art which … reflects[s] and help[s] shape an egalitarian society” (Pascal, 47). Guthrie even alludes to himself as a “prophet-singer” (Hampton, 98). For him, the term is synonymous with Whitman's the answerer:

He is the answerer,
What can be answered he answers, and what cannot be answered he shows how it cannot be answered.

(Cowley, 130)

Guthrie first assumes, then sheds the role of the answerer in “Why Oh Why.” In response to the query “why don't you answer my questions,” he writes, “Because I don't know the answers” (Guthrie and Leventhal, 243). In “Blowin' in the Wind” Dylan is even more cryptic. He knows that answers exist, but that they exist everywhere around and everywhere within us:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

(Dylan, 53)

Dylan senses, as do his poetic predecessors, that the prophet-singer can offer direction, but ultimately the individual must come to terms with his or her own self. The prophet-singer can only “write one or two indicative words for the future” (Murphy, 48). He or she cannot answer that which the self must answer. He or she can offer guidance, but no definitive solutions. After all, as Dylan says in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (Dylan, 164).

Because all three poets emphasize the self, and the potential of that self, it follows then that they would invite active reader-listener participation. In “A Song for Occupations” Whitman urges:

Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.

(Cowley, 86)

Whitman refers to his readers as “lovers,” and believing them so, seeks to transcend the page. He offers his readers the opportunity to engage themselves in what he has to say. What he proposes is akin to contemporary reader-response criticism. He sets himself equal to the reader, understanding that he or she plays as much a part in the evolution of a work as he:

All doctrines, all politics and civilization exurge from you,
All sculpture and monuments and anything inscribed anywhere are tallied in you,
The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records reach is in you this hour—and myths and tales the same;
If you were not breathing and walking here where would they all be?
The most renowned poems would be ashes … orations and plays would be vacuums.

(Cowley, 92)

Because Whitman invites active, even aggressive, reader participation, Robert Olsen believes that Whitman's “poetry requires that the reader constantly renew its discourse by reinvesting it with new poetic meaning and, as a result, reaffirming it as the poetry of a flourishing, liberal American state” (305). Guthrie also recognizes the value of active audience participation. He believes that “a song ain't nothing but a conversation where you can talk it over and over without getting tired of it. And it's this repeating the idea over and over that makes it take hold” (Guthrie, Library of Congress Recordings). When appraising his audience's role, Dylan sounds even more Whitmanesque: “A song leaves your mouth just as soon as it leaves your hands. You've got to respect other people's right to also have a message themselves” (Hentoff, 55).

No doubt, the two best examples of readers accepting Whitman's invitation, are, in fact, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. As shown, Guthrie aggressively reads Whitman, revealing both his indebtedness to him and his ability to clear “imaginative space” for himself. Likewise, Dylan misreads, or reinterprets Guthrie, thereby securing his own voice. In “Better World” Guthrie's speaker promises “I'm gonna bring you warlords down, scatter you warbirds on my new ground” (Guthrie and Leventhal, 58). Dylan assumes Guthrie's pose, altering it to fit his image, to conform to his poetic. And in the process, as he borrows and reinvents, his lyrics mirror both the changing times and the aggressiveness with which he reads Guthrie. In “Masters of War” he lashes out at Guthrie's “warlords,” but much more harshly:

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

(Dylan, 56)

It is this same aggressiveness, this inclination to reinterpret, that allows an overtly Christian message to filter into Dylan's later work. Dylan's take on Christianity differs dramatically from both Whitman's:

And I know that the hand of God is the elder hand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,

(Cowley, 29)

and Guthrie's:

This morning I am born again
And light shines thru the land
And I do not seek a heaven
In some distant land;
No longer desire a pearly gate
Nor want a street of gold.
I do not want a mansion
For my heart is never cold.
This morning I am born again
I am whole, new, complete—
I am o'ercome all my sins
I stand on my own feet—
I am life unlimited
My body as the sky
I am at home in the universe
Where yonder planets fly.
This morning I am born again
My past is dead and gone—
This great eternal moment
Is my great eternal dawn;
I give myself, my heart, my soul
To give some friend a hand.
This morning I am born again.
I am in the promised land.

(Leventhal and Marsh, 27)

These excerpts from Whitman's “Song of Myself” and Guthrie's “This Morning I Am Born Again” exhibit each poet's belief that everyone is their own god, that each of us possess the potential to create a heaven here on earth, a paradise founded and dependent upon the love and respect we show ourselves and others. In his more recent work, Dylan seems to disagree. He suggests we also need loving, lasting relationships with God and Jesus Christ. In “Saved” he writes:

I was blinded by the devil,
Born already ruined,
As I stepped out of the womb.
By His grace I have been touched,
By His word I have been healed,
By His hand I've been delivered,
By His spirit I've been sealed.
I've been saved By the blood of the lamb,
By the blood of the lamb,
And I'm so glad,
Yes, I'm so glad,
I'm so glad,
So glad,
I want to thank You, Lord,
I just want to thank You, Lord,
Thank You, Lord.

(Dylan, 443)

Dylan's deeply held religious convictions, having evolved over decades, after hundreds of poems and songs and sketches, help to distinguish his work, or at least his later work, from Whitman's and Guthrie's. So then, Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, with its familial metaphors, its poetic fathers and sons, is, no doubt, a viable way to read the relationships shared between Whitman and Guthrie, Guthrie and Dylan. Guthrie and Dylan owe Whitman considerably. Their poetic springs from his belief that “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people” (Cowley, 5-6).

Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan are “singer[s] of democracy,” and as Pascal suggests, “the singer of democracy … must attempt to play to the big audience, which is held to be, in a reversal of the position traditionally adhered to by most artists, the only true discriminating one” (48). As singers of democracy they are poets and revolutionaries. They speak for a people forgotten, a people without a voice.

And as a result, each father opens up a larger audience for his son. He makes possible the popular success denied him in his own lifetime. Pascal insists that “measured against their highest hopes … it must appear that both Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie were failures” (56). Failures? Maybe. But they were successful in that Dylan, their poetic heir, enjoyed and still enjoys the widespread success they both sought. Whitman challenged “a new brood, native, athletic continental, greater than before known” to “justify” him, and because Guthrie and Dylan answered his call, a familial line, a line of truly strong poets, ultimately secures vindication and, in the process, justification for a democratic aesthetic (Murphy, 48). Who can call that failure?


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Dylan, Bob (Pseudonym of Robert Zimmerman)