Bob Dylan: from folk-singer to the world's greatest poet

April 18, 2009

Bob Dylan may dismiss himself as 'a song and dance man' but critics cite him as a major cultural force of our age

There is almost too much of it. More than a thousand books about the 67-year-old father of lit.rock have been published in English. About twice that number if you add the works in 27 other languages. There are many reasons: first, and most obviously, he has been turning out the songs for nearly half a century. These too probably number about a thousand. By any standards it is a mighty and varied body of work. His longevity means that people who spent - indeed whose parents spent - their teenage years listening to him are now established writers and critics themselves, and so setting the tone of the debate.

Even the critiquing of Bob Dylan has a tradition. For the British, there are several crucial players. They include Professor Christopher Ricks, now 75, whose long-contemplated book, Dylan's Visions of Sin, finally came out in 2003; and the late Wilfred Mellers, who was the University of York's first Professor of Music in the 1960s. Their colleagues may have been bemused at their interest in this cowboy-sounding waif. There was no getting round that voice, hence no possibility of engagement with what it was saying. But to the young audience who were enjoying the cleverness of his rebellion, here were credible allies. After all, Ricks was an Oxford professor. He was an authority on Milton, Tennyson, Keats and Eliot. When he expressed his approval for songs with such lines as “In the museum infinity goes up on trial”, or “Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand”, he did so from a vantage point with a long perspective.

This did not mean that all the writing was good, or even readily comprehensible - as Mellers said of the singer's ballad origins: “In the world of the ‘poor white', the grand modal themes survive, but the line becomes harder, tighter, the rhythm more cabined and confined in the metres of hymnody ... The happiness is eupeptic, even if also a bit euphoric; for the shutting out of pain involves a wilful hardening of sensibility.”

Then there is Michael Gray, a former student of the renowned critic F.R.Leavis, and author of the compendious new Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, and Clinton Heylin, whose analytical history of Dylan's songs, Revolution in the Air, is published next week. Gray is widely credited with a new kind of critical writing that takes account of the fact that while the lyrics of the songs may be poetic, and therefore inspected as poetry, they remain just one part of the genre.

The point is echoed by Ricks, who now teaches at Boston University and gives talks on Dylan. He says you have to bear in mind that there are three strands - the words, the music and, like it or not, the voice. “For that reason the business about whether Dylan is better than Keats seems perhaps idle ... what seems certain to me is that he does stand comparison with the very greatest poets.”

Even Ricks has no idea of the number of US universities running courses that offer Dylan studies. What is certain is that he is now officially recognised in academe as a great of American letters. Last year brought the publication of The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, with a collection of scholarly essays by contributors from Yale and other distinguished institutes. The Oxford Book of American Poetry carries the lyrics of Desolation Row, the long bleak song that Ricks once called Dylan's Waste Land. A high school textbook, The Norton Introduction to Literature, prints the lyrics of Mr Tambourine Man. Our own Poet Laureate Andrew Motion says Dylan is the most important artist working today, anywhere and in any field.

When it comes to what is being said and written about him, Dylan himself has always seemed to be somewhere between uninterested and disdainful. In an ongoing conversation with Bill Flanagan, currently being published on his website, Dylan recently said he finally felt ‘freed up', “I see that my audience now ... feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don't hang anybody up. Like if there's an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it's not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value.” In his Chronicles, however, he despairs at the Dylan freaks clambering over his roof while he and his first wife Sara are trying to raise their young family in upstate New York. One of the reasons he is reckoned fair game by his analysts is that he himself seems to be littering his own trails with cultural clues, whether he is noting that “No one ever sang the blues like Blind Willie McTell”, or invoking Verlaine and Rimbaud, or spotting “Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot/Fighting in the captain's tower”.

At the University of Illinois at Springfield, Professor of English Dr Bill Carpenter has started a summer course called “Bob Dylan's America”, which studies the relationship between the songs, their author, and “the different communities with which he has interacted”. Themes include civil rights activism, evangelical Christianity and the millennial generation. “There was such a huge shift in everything when he appeared,” Dr Carpenter says, “and you can still see its effects everywhere.”

He also says the young of today have discovered Dylan's work, whether through their own networks or their parents'/grandparents' shelves. This point is made by enthusiasts of all sorts. Reasons include the success of Chronicles; the 2005 Martin Scorsese film No Direction Home, in which he spoke eloquently about his life and influences; his emergence as a thoughtful and witty presenter on the Theme Time Radio Hour music shows; the sheer quality of his most recent records, one of which, Modern Times in 2006, made him the oldest artist to top the US album chart; the anticipation of the new album. “Raw-country love songs, sly wordplay ... seductive border-café feel,” says Rolling Stone. You don't need a PhD to join in. That's the fun thing about having a Pulitzer prize-winning world poet who is also enough of a good old-fashioned rock star to command a “Dress Like Bob Dylan” spread in The Sun. A degree of nerdishness helps. A Brooklyn fan called A.J. Weberman founded the critical approach known as garbology, which entailed going through the singer's rubbish bin for signs and clues.

Today the sifting can be conducted by search engine. New Dylan albums are routinely Googled to within an inch of their life. Some dogged Dylanologists detected similarities between the lyrics of Modern Times and the work of a little-known poet of the American Civil War, Henry Timrod. “More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours,” sings Dylan on When the Deal Goes Down. “A round of precious hours,” wrote Timrod, “Oh! Here, where in that summer noon I basked/ And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.”

He has always borrowed. The more purist of his detractors say that word should be put in quotation marks because he doesn't credit his lenders. According to old friends of the teenage Robert Zimmerman in his home town of Hibbing, Minnesota - where there is now a Bob Dylan museum - he also failed to return their LPs. But then it was his deep, early knowledge of the oral music tradition that made his own material so substantial. So what you had, and have, is a musician steeped in the folk song of Britain and Ireland, the blues and gospel of his own country, the rock that evolved from them, the narrative ballads of his hero Woody Guthrie, and much besides.

Beyond this there was, crucially, the non-musical influence of the Beat Poets of the 1960s, particularly the late Allen Ginsberg, whom he befriended, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still writing at 90. There are dozens of Dylan's songs in which you hear the same verbal energy as in Ginsberg's 1956 poem Howl, or, for that matter, the imagery of Poe or the long, winding lines of Walt Whitman. There had been plenty of great songwriters before Dylan, none more so than Cole Porter. From him and his peers came sublime marriages of wit and passion - “the Tinpantithesis of Melody” - but there had never been popular music with stanzas of such literate complexity or wild flights of expressionism. That is where the great change came; that is what set the critics going and keeps them at it.

Just as there are good and bad singers, there are good and bad critics. Elizabeth Thompson, a former editor of Publishing News and the compiler of several books on Dylan, has her doubts about the value of the pursuit. “Some of the dissertations I've read are just badly written, and with poor scholarship,” she says. “The same rigour should be applied to this kind of research as any other.”

“All musicians need listeners more than they need critics,” Ricks says, “just as all playwrights need audiences more than they need theatre critics. Yet it's true that they [critics] can mediate usefully. For example, I'm grateful to Harold Hobson for writing about Samuel Beckett as he did.”

As many are to F.R.Leavis for writing about T.S. Eliot as he did. What would he (Leavis) have made of Bob Dylan and all his works? “Oh, I don't think he would have comprehended it,” says Michael Gray,” although, if he had been young when Dylan came through, then I think he would have recognised Dylan's strength, just as he had with Eliot.”

Anyone who values Leavis's critical principles must return to the text. The trouble is that with Dylan there isn't really a text, and what there is keeps altering. Round and round he goes on his never-ending tour, 100 gigs a year, each time tearing down the familiar shapes of the songs and throwing up strange new ones, deliberately missing the old notes by a mile. As has been said of him so often, the only constant thing about him is his shape-shifting. Protean is the expensive word. It makes the spectacle of Dylan-hunting faintly hilarious. It always has. The title of Todd Haynes 2007 film about him, I'm Not There, was right on the money. As one critic said with a laugh: “The trouble is, he isn't dead.”

So here's one critical certainty. If you think there will be a last word - epilogue, coda, postscript - on this professionally elusive subject, you're plain wrong.

[EDLIS Notes]

Here is a nice discussion of how Dylan has been addressed by academia and the publishing world in the past.

Chronicles Volume One

Chapter 3: New Morning, pages 132-134

By Bob Dylan

     Earlier in the week we had gotten back from Princeton, New Jersey, where I had been given a Honorary Doctorate degree. It had been a weird adventure. Somehow, I had motivated David Crosby to come along. Crosby was part of a new supergroup, but I knew him from when he was in The Byrds, part of the West Coast music scene. They'd recorded a song of mine, "Mr. Tambourine Man," and the record made it to the top of the charts. Crosby was a colorful and unpredictable character, wore a Mandrake the Magician cape, didn't get along with too many people and had a beautiful voice --- an architect of harmony. He was tottering on the brink of death even then and could freak out a whole city block all by himself, but I liked him a lot. He was out of place in The Byrds. He could be an obstreperous companion.

     We pulled off of Route 80 in a '69 Buick Electra, found the university on a hot and cloudless day. In short time the officials led me into a crowded room and put me in a robe, and soon I was looking out over a crowd of well-dressed people in the sun. There were also others on the stage getting honorary degrees and I needed mine as much as they needed theirs but for different reasons. Walter Lippman, the liberal columnist, Coretta Scott King, some others --- but all eyes were on me. I stood there in the heat staring out at the crowd, daydreaming, haad attention-span disorder.

     When my turn came to accept the degree, the speaker introducing me said something like how I distinguished myself in carminibus canendi and that I now would enjoy all the university's individual rights and privileges wherever they pertain, but then he added, "Though he is known to millions, he shuns publicity and organizations preferring the solidarity of his family and isolation from the world, and though he is appoaching the perilous age of thirty, he remains the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America." Oh Sweet Jesus! It was like a jolt. I shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless. The disturbed conscience of Young America! There it was again. I couldn't believe it! Tricked once more. The speaker could have said many things, he could have emphasized a few things about my music. When he said to the crowd that I preferred isolation from the world, it was like he told them that I preferred being in an iron tomb with my food shoved in on a tray.

     The sunlight was blocking my vision, but I could still see the faces gawking at me with such strange expressions. I was so mad I wanted to bite myself. Lately the public perception of me had begun to shift and move around like a yo-yo, but this kind of thing could set it back a thousand years.Didn't they know what was happening? Even the Russian newspaper Pravda had called me a money-hungry capitalist. Even the Weathermen, a notorious group who made homemade bombs in basements to blow up public buildings, who had taken their name from a line in one of my songs, had recently changed their name from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground. I was losing all kinds of credibility.There were all kinds of things going on. I was glad I came to get the degree, though. I could use it. Every look and touch and scent of it spelled respectability and had something of the spirit of the universe in it. After whispering and mumbling my way through the ceremony, I was handed the scroll. We piled back into the big Buick and drove away. It had been a strange day. "Bunch of dickheads on auto-stroke," Crosby said.