Frank Lawton

How Bob Dylan Plays

The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster, 2022, pp.352, £35 (hardcover)
Folk Music: A Biography of Dylan in Seven Songs, Greil Marcus, Yale University Press, 2022, pp.288, £20 (hardcover)

The band are clad in black. Lead guitar grips his instrument like a gun; the bassist bears his like a cross. The five-piece loiter at the crossroads, dressed somewhere between assassins and preachers, awaiting the call.

Dylan is hidden behind what looks like a school piano, face on to the audience. He stands and delivers his lyrics, one hand resting on the piano top, holding himself up like a saloon bar drunk, or an eighty-one year-old doing yet another tour of the world.

The sound comes from another century, not necessarily one behind us. The music tiptoes along a ledge; it could slip into country, could fall into jazz, could break down altogether. It is full of space, resonance, echoes; a music of animated suspension with a sometimes sinister intent as Dylan growls, croons, charms, and condemns.

His are gestures of uncertain meaning; his hand passes through the air like a Roman Senator or magician. His phrasing is supple, inventive, even perverse. ‘Key West’ is unmasked as ‘Desolation Row’’s cousin. The Civil War-era folk song ‘Shenandoah’ morphs into ‘Mother of Muses’.

He closes with ‘Every Grain of Sand’, a confession and valediction. The applause refuses to die. Dylan stands there, waves, looks, leaves and returns – twice, unusually – pulls awkwardly at his sleeves as the applause swells. Finally, he holds his hands out, palms to the ground. Enough. And then he is gone.

London Palladium, 24 October 2022


Where did Bob Dylan come from, and where did he go? The Philosophy of Modern Song is in part an answer to the former, while Greil Marcus’s Folk Music: A Biography of Dylan in Seven Songs is a partial answer to the latter.

Neither of these books is being straight with you. At least, not on first glance. The Philosophy of Modern Song is not, in fact, a book of philosophy, and neither are the songs it looks at particularly ‘modern’. Marcus’s Folk Music: A Biography, is not, in fact, a biography of Bob Dylan, and doesn’t strictly confine itself to seven songs or ‘folk’ music (rather it is ‘folk’ in the American sense of ‘people’, the music of a nation’s life).

Rather, Dylan’s is a book of coded (auto)biography – writing about sixty-six songs composed between 1849-2003 in a way that glosses his own life, reminiscent of his ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ monologues – while Marcus’s is a kind-of philosophy, arguing that a person’s ‘true biography’ is one freed from chronology, where ‘everything’ is about everything else, ‘made into a single subject’.

Some have seen the ‘Philosophy’ in Dylan’s title as a Bob-joke, a wry aggrandization and tweak of the academic nose. But Dylan is serious. As he’s been telling us for years: ‘those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book… you can find all my philosophy in those old songs’ (1997). This is philosophy-as-roadmap through life, a stock of values accrued over generations: another word for it might be wisdom (if of a fairly narrow kind).

It is a view Marcus – one of Dylan’s most perceptive critics – understands, indeed in some ways replicates, burying into a song to uncover its ghosts, before tracing the song’s reverberations down the decades. Does it work? Well, sometimes, and sort of. This method could be termed associational criticism, in the style of Walter Pater. The benefits are that, unlike the dry academics, Marcus begins to capture the experience of actually listening to Dylan, making old songs new again. The opening of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ is enigmatic because ‘the musicians are playing an ending, not a beginning…[it has] the elegance of a closing door’. That feels oddly right. At other times it can lead to hyperbolic or absurdly tenuous claims, to assert intention when really there may at best be unintentional allusion.

Were two of the notes Robbie Robertson plays on ‘Visions of Johanna’ really his way of showing you that the song ‘was a version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean’”?

Either way, Dylan Studies is in its infancy; The Bob Dylan Center at Tulsa, Oklahoma – next to the Woody Guthrie Center and housing Dylan’s 100,000 item archive – is less than a year old. Marcus’s Folk Music provides a model for looking at Dylan’s life and reception, while Dylan’s Philosophy gives us yet more to look at. Together, they invite us into further ways of thinking about Dylan.

Bringing them All Back Home

Academics tend to emphasise Dylan’s place in a Bardic tradition, stressing his literariness (and ‘justifying’ their own interest) by drawing attention to his allusions: Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dante. In doing so they can over-emphasise Dylan’s Europeanness (which Dylan himself has been keen to highlight throughout his career). What, strangely, gets less attention is Dylan’s deep Americanness – in the Emersonian values of his songs, in the allusions to a wider American canon and, most importantly, in his musical inheritance, which draws deeply on the late nineteenth, early twentieth century American sounds, the old music of a young country. Of all his critics, Greil Marcus is by far the most attentive to this Dylan.

For it’s easy to forget quite how far back Dylan’s life reaches into the soul of American music. His first producer, John Hammond, recorded the Jazz Age singer Bessie Smith when she signed for Colombia Records in 1923. In 1962, Dylan was playing harmonica with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams, who, as Marcus reminds us, had ‘first recorded in the twenties’, using material they’d heard from their musical elders, whose own lives and songs stretched back into the nineteenth century. These were people Dylan knew, heard, learnt from. The tradition we can now see through textbooks was the life Dylan lived. Like a modern- day Alan Lomax or Harry Smith, Dylan’s importance rests not simply on his own songs but the way in which so many strands of American music are bound up in him; the way he can transform a Civil War ballad into one of his own songs, that night at the London Palladium in October 2022.

Bob-bing About

A significant aspect of Dylan’s image is that of the truth teller. But what helps make Dylan’s art so enduring is its mystery, its lack of certainty. Even in those early, defining, folk-protest albums, uncertainty is not far from the surface. In ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, we hear a series of questions answered with something ineffable, an answer that is no answer at all. Pope John Paul II requested Dylan perform the song at a huge open-air Mass in 1997. Extraordinarily, in his sermon the Pope framed the song as a message to God and from God, with Dylan serving as the people’s tribune and the Lord’s prophet: ‘A representative of yours has just said on your behalf that the answer to the questions of your life “is blowing in the wind”… It is true… the wind is the breath and voice of the Spirit’ (my italics). But even the Pope’s best attempt to secure the song’s message sounds, well, insecure (‘It is true’, honest). Similarly, we hear ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964), but into what exactly? ‘The wheel’s still in spin’ but ‘there’s no tellin’ who that it’s naming / For the loser now will be later to win’ (a disquieting phrase: later than who? Later than the winners in the new order too?). Something is happening here, but ‘I don’t understand too well / myself what’s really happening’, Dylan writes in the liner notes to 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home (that insistent ‘myself’ binding his uncertainty over who he is to his uncertainty about the changing world around him).

Despite the consternation at Dylan ‘Going Christian’ in 1978/79, Dylan’s is, and has always been, a music of faith, because at its heart is doubt. Man is fallen, for sure, but what then? The answers can be found, perhaps, in play.

Don’t Look Back (Too Closely)

In Music and the Ineffable, Vladimir Jankélévitch asks ‘To what does one pay attention [when listening to music]? The listener believes that he understands something where, in reality, there is nothing to understand.’

Dylan appears to – almost – concur, writing in Philosophy that ‘Like any other piece of art, songs are not seeking to be understood. Art can be appreciated or interpreted but there is seldom anything to understand’.

Aside from coyness, we might also think there is ‘seldom anything to understand’ because ‘understanding’ is the wrong approach, both in terms of how a song is written, and how it might be listened to. Dylan frames this age-old knowledge versus feeling opposition again in Philosophy, this time in the telling context of biography: ‘Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song… It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important’ (my italics). Instead of understanding set categories, perhaps the question is, after all, ‘how does it feel’?

In a 2015 MusiCares address, Dylan talks about his creative process in terms of his musical inheritance: ‘If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me… you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.’ But more often than not, he refers to it in veiled, almost mystical terms, such as in a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan: ‘it’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you. It’s as if you were looking at something far off and now you’re standing in the middle of it. It’s the art of transforming things. You don’t really serve art, art serves you.’

Art happens to you (passively), and yet it is also about ‘transforming things’ (actively). One way to balance these passives and actives is through playing around, letting words be ‘transmitted’ to you, before taking up a process of endless revision – itself a form of productive uncertainty, since you can never be sure when a song is finished, or if finishing a song is even possible.

Dylan’s Play

Dylan is playing all the time – in writing, and in concert. Since 1988 he’s been on the Never Ending Tour, performing over 100 gigs every year, with thrillingly different versions played compared to those released on the LPs. The Bootleg Series (now in its seventeenth edition) presents work released decades ago in new (old) form, with junked versions, rehearsals and live performances pulling songs this way and that, trying sounds on for size.

Play is recreation, and recreation is what it says: re-creation. In Dylan’s play he is re-creating his songs, and those songs that he draws upon from America’s early musical heritage.

In this way, Dylan’s music and his lyrics are able ‘to keep sense open, on the move’, as Angela Leighton wrote of Robert Frost (a poet Dylan likes to namecheck). In Dylan’s writing, ambiguity (keeping meaning on the move, unable to pin down) and revision (keeping songs on the move, changing over time) are always in play.

Getting Lucky

There are plenty of ambiguous aural doubles in Dylan’s songs (‘sense/ cents’ being a favourite), but the lyrics also play at ‘keeping sense on the move’. Take the final verse of ‘Pledging My Time’, from Blonde on Blonde (1966):

Well, they sent for the ambulance
And one was sent
Somebody got lucky
But it was an accident
Now I’m pledging my time to you
Hopin’ you’ll come through, too

Quite what work is ‘lucky’ doing in this verse? Was ‘somebody’ lucky to have an ambulance called, but the mistake was it arrived? Did they get lucky in the sense they were lucky to still be alive and need an ambulance rather than a hearse? Got lucky (perhaps financially, gambling) and that’s why they need an ambulance (after karmic retribution for unearned fortune)? Or is it a sexual comedy (‘got lucky’ too wildly…)? And what of the last line, which has been repeated at the end of each verse (largely meaning ‘hope that the other person will be worth the time and pledge the same’) but is now given a shadow meaning: pledging my time ‘to sit by you’, hoping you’ll come through, as if they’re on life support. True to life, the comic and the tragic co-habit, sharing a sense of inevitability: the punchline will come, but it’s going to hurt.

Rhyming across Time

Just as a novelist can’t be ascribed the views of all his characters, Dylan’s views can’t be directly drawn from his lyrics. But while each song is a performance of persona, the personas Dylan chooses to adopt can still prove instructive.

Dylan has always had companion songs, songs that rhyme with each other across the decades, such as ‘Girl from the North Country’ (1963) and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ (1974/5), or ‘North Country Blues’ (1964) and ‘Union Sundown’ (1983). But in Dylan’s late(r) work there has been a more concerted conversation with earlier versions of himself.

Listen to ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964) and ‘Things Have Changed’ (2000); or ‘My Own Version of You’ (2020) and Dylan’s version of himself in 1965-66. Or take ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ (2001), with its echo of ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ (1963). Four years after the Pope’s anointing, the wind is talking again, but its message is less co-optable, carrying not answers, but false hope:

Last night the wind was whisperin’,
I was trying to make out what it was
Last night the wind was whisperin’ somethin’ –
I was trying to make out what it was
I tell myself something’s comin’ –
But it never does

That ‘something’ is an important word in the Dylan lexicon, cropping up at key times in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, among others. It’s a word pregnant with vagueness: ‘something’ may be ‘some thing’, or ‘something or other’, or almost nothing. It’s strong enough to carry the weight of the world and light enough to be caught on the wind. In that sense it’s a word that embodies Dylan’s songwriting, in its capacity for ambiguous and simultaneous hearings, its ability to be a cipher for something else, to be simultaneously evasive, playful and profound.

In ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (1965) Dylan exhorts (us?) to:

Leave your stepping stones behind, there’s something that calls for you,
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

That capacious ‘something’ could be the future calling; could be ‘art’ in one of its ‘transmissions’. But even at this early stage, when he was being framed as a pure original, Dylan was rooting himself in the American songbook and the European canon, while still keeping sense on the move. For those lines, in their echo of Tennyson’s elegy ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ (Canto I.1-4), and in their refusal to progress to a new full rhyme (instead hesitating on ‘for you / follow you’), suggest it might not be so easy to leave the dead behind after all. The dead are carried with him. They live inside the songs, breathing old notes into new music. They are a ‘something’, continually calling. And one day Dylan will depart the stage and join them, leaving something behind, alive.

Frank Lawton’s writing on books, art and politics has appeared in The Spectator, the Financial Times, The Telegraph, the TLS and Literary Review, among other places.

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