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Bob Dylan Revisited
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Bob Dylan Revisited

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The Tale Of Bob Dylan & Johnny Thunders & Sid & Van
by BP Fallon

Slane Castle, County Meath, Ireland 1984… and beyond.

Written NYC July 15/16th 2003

1984 and the Orwellian seer Bob Dylan. Chinwagging with The Big Zee in his trailer before the gig, him asking you ’bout that guitar-toting buzzard Johnny Thunders who you’d introduced him to at a Link Wray show in London some six or seven years before. Dylan had been kinda startled as Johnny reached out for Bob’s wet fish handshake. Said he’d never heard of The New York Dolls, was more interested in where he could get a new coat.

Sid Vicious’ Nancy wobbled up, tits hanging out and eyes closing down. This apparition heaves itself onto Dylan’s skinny bosom, she a sloppy floppy messy deadweight bodybag of mascaraed custard landing heavily onto the poet’s ribcage unprotected by Dylan’s tatty old leather coat that he’s had for ages. Dylan winces.

“Sex!” this clinging eyeshadowed amoeba blurts out to The Voice Of A Generation who twitches like he’s stuck outside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again and as he tries to free himself of this snaily woman he shakes his shoulders, Bob Dylan the frazzle-haired and frazzled creaky old rumba dancer at the YMCA with a junkie on his back.

You explain to Bob that Sex is the clothes shop run by Vivienne Westwood and her partner, the wideboy rock’n’roll manager Malcolm McClaren. “They sell coats and stuff, bondage gear”. Bob perks up perceptively. “Rubber stuff?” he queries. “Malcolm managed the Sex Pistols” you soothe. On cue, The Voice Of Degeneration shrills out like a petulant lost baby seal. “Nance-yyy!” It’s Sid, calling out for his monkey minder and her mind-numbing medicine.

Later that night Sid asks you to be his manager. “Malcolm’s your manager” you point out. Sid had an expedient way to get out of his contract. “I’ll cut his fuckin’ throat”, chortle chortle snivel snot, wipe nose on leather jacket sleeve. At least Sid was polite enough to wipe his dribbling nose on his own leather jacket. You, you’re already managing Johnny Thunders – full-on too much JT junkie bizness, a true-blood Noo Yoik rock’n’roller as magic as Gene Vincent Meets Keef Richards, turning himself to shit with smack.

Johnny and Sid have already played live at The Speakeasy as The Living Dead. Well, Sid climbed up onto Johnny’s stage and stumbled off again. Now they want to call their group The Junkies. Things like that could do your head in. I don’t think Bob Dylan ever got his new coat. The NME had a photo of me’n’Bawb at the Link Wray gig. What can you do?

So now we’re back at Slane watching Paul Brady honoured to show this gnarled lizard how to play The Lakes Of Ponchatrain in this crappy trailer by the banks of the Boyne. Bob does just fine, fumbles and mumbles and shy ‘Aw shucks’ cowpoke grin as his long fingernails scratch at an acoustic guitar.

BPFallonBobDylan Now Bob is out in the sunlight by the Boyne’s dancing waters, fondly recalling Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem and Liam’s brothers and the friendship they’d bestowed on him when he first arrived in New York, the huge influence they’d had on him, eulogising The Clancy Brothers as film cameras capture the bashful bard paying tribute to his back pages. The filming, it’s for a Clancy Brothers documentary.

And now you’re standing on the side of the stage with Patsy watching Bob Dylan and his band rockin’ out like electric methedrine with lumps in it and there’s Bono and Ali taking it all in too.

Van Morrison shuffles up to where we’re standing, picks up an acoustic guitar, puts it down, looks grumpy. You look at Bono and he looks at you and the vibe is ‘Aw, fuck, doesn’t look like Van will sing with Dylan now’. But of course Van does, the ornery bastard, goes on and has Dylan singing with him on Van’s own Tupelo Honey, the two voices clashing and meshing and dancing around each other like refreshed lovers probing. The Goat On The Barbed Wire Fence and The Mighty Lion’s Roar are now singing Bob’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue together and untogether and it’s poetry emotion.

“Take what you have gathered from coincidence…” You know a couple of guys in Dylan’s combo. That’s why you and your girl are here at Slane in such an exulted viewpoint. You trip over a wire causing the PA to stab out a sharp metallic crackle and Dylan jumps back from his mic all shook up and you put on your best ‘What, me?’ face and hide behind Patsy.

There’s Mick Taylor from The Stones twanging majestically, his guitar like liquid mercury. And over there, the keyboards swirl from the fingers of another dear chum from the rock’n’roll daze, this lovely grinning diamond Ian MacLagan, he from The Small Faces/Faces/Stones and more. He wrote about this special day and this night-until-dawn in his book All The Rage, Mac did, this very last night of this European tour.

Ah, yes. Maybe it’s odd but you feel proud of these guys as they play behind Bob Dylan. It’s very warming. Many rivers to cross and they’ve burnt a few bridges, come out from the storm to find the blessed chalice now sometimes free from harm. Instant calmer’s gonna get you. And His Master’s Voice, it’s wheezy and raspy and magic and sinewy like a snake from the Book Of Isiah, curling around Van’s magnificent full-chested roar of redemption. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey” indeed. Perfect.

-By & © BP Fallon 2003

Slane Castle
Slane, Ireland
8 July 1984
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Bob Dylan and John Lennon?

From the EDLIS website, 'Surrounded by fakery'.

This fake photoshop has been circulating for many years, and was debunked from at least 2011. 

Below is the original photograph of John Lennon, with Paul McCartney in the background, backstage at a Beatles' concert. 

No Bob. 

The picture of Bob Dylan is a reversed and cropped version of a photograph by Tony Gale of Bob Dylan in London, 1966.
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It's one of the obvious ones. Lighting is off. 
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Manny Greenhill and Bob Dylan, 1963.

Sally Schoenfeld's apartment, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was Sunday, April 21, 1963, following Club 47's weekly hootennany. 

Photograph by Rick Stafford. 

The Schoenfeld party is described in "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" by Eric von Schmidt & Jim Rooney.

Also in David Hajdu's book "Positively 4th Street", pages 146 - 148.



Von, Schmidt E, and Jim Rooney. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994, 0585279780.

Hajdu, David. Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña. New York: North Point Press, 2001, 086547642X.


Manuel A. (Manny) Greenhill was born Mendel Greenberg, in
New York City, 1916. He was a labour activist, a concert presenter and later a booking agent and manager to several folk singers. In 1960, Manny was asked by Albert Baez to take care of 19 year old Joan Baez.  

Manny Greenhill's full biography can be read here:

“I think it was Alan Lomax who said that as far as he was concerned the folk song revival began when Pete Seeger met Woody Guthrie in 1940 and they shook hands and that was the beginning of what we call the folk song revival – and I think he’s got a point. (And) I sort of relate to that too.” -- Manny Greenhill, interviewed by Jim Rooney, author of Boss Men and, with Eric von Schmidt, Baby Let Me Follow You Down.


"Manny had known a number of these musicians, including Pete Seeger, from his days as a labor activist in New York. They both had been at Peekskill, New York, a few years earlier, when right-wing vigilantes had beaten and stoned a crowd gathered to hear a concert by Paul Robeson."

[. . .]

"Pete had a problem -- the blacklist was causing local presenters to cancel confirmed bookings -- and he expressed a wish to find a local New England presenter who would follow through. Manny said, “I’m your man,” and agreed to present his next Boston appearance."


Manny Greenhill was present when Joan Baez introduced Donovan to Dylan, his supposed enemy, in 1965. 

"Joaney's manager, Manny Greenhill, said: "Calm down, Joan." I watched all this open-mouthed, then ventured, "I'll come with you, Joaney." The three Americans turned to me.

"Bobbie was in another suite. It seemed that he had refused to take an active part in any street protest with Joaney over American involvement in Vietnam. Having "arrived" in 1963 with "Blowing in the Wind", he had seemingly abandoned protest songs.

"Meanwhile, there was a growing protest in Europe in the streets and legislatures. There were a number of violent demo clashes in Paris, condemning foreign involvement in Vietnam, and Joaney was infuriated with Dylan because he had previously advertised his radical views in song, but in Joaney's eyes had now become "vague" and would not follow her into the streets to protest.

"Joaney took me to Dylan's suite. Dressed all in black, he wore a pair of black Anello & Davide boots worthy of any gypsy. He was quite small and slight of frame, a very pretty young man with bad teeth and curiously solid hands. His slim features were widened at the jawline with powerful muscles. Definitely the thinking girl's crumpet."


Manny Passed away in 1996, from heart failure during chemotherapy for leukemia, and his obituary can be read here:


In February 2007, Earl Scruggs, Dave Van Ronk and Manny Greenhill were honoured with Lifetime Achievement Awards at the International Folk Alliance Conference:

"Business/Industry Lifetime Achievement Award: Manny Greenhill –The late Manny Greenhill, originally a union organizer, came to music after hearing Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers in New York. He started presenting concerts in the early 1950’s around Boston with artists such as Josh White, Pete Seeger and Odetta while also running an ad placement business in foreign language newspapers. Manny helped to found the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston and in 1960 opened the Ballad Room, a part of the Cambridge folk music scene. He was on the board of the legendary Club 47. He started Folklore Productions in the late ‘50’s which managed many young musicians, most notably Joan Baez with whom he worked for fourteen years. He also represented Doc Watson, Jesse Fuller, and Rev. Gary Davis, helping to ensure that traditional artists were well paid and their compositions well protected. As Folklore Productions grew Greenhill established his office in Santa Monica, California. This enabled him to keep a closer eye on the recording industry. He worked from there until his death in 1996. Today son, Mitchell and grandson, Matt run his company. Manny Greenhill loved telling stories about folk music, politics and how they were, in his view, inextricably intertwined. At the 1995 FA conference in Portland, Oregon, musician/producer Jim Rooney recorded Manny telling some of these stories. This has been preserved as part of the Folk Alliance’s Oral History program."


Greenhill Family/Folklore Productions Collection, 1960-2000 (inclusive), 1970-1990:
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Interview with Andrew Muir about his book, 'Shakespeare in Cambridge', moves to talk about his other passion - Bob Dylan.

Interesting links between the two bards of different ages.
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Bob Dylan - On the rooftop of Hotel d'Europe - in Avignon, France - 1981. Photo by Howard Alk.

Bob Egan shares his excellent research again - this time locating the position of Bob Dylan's 1981 rooftop photograph by Howard Alk, as well as the locations of another informal photograph of Bob Dylan in Avignon.
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Dylan in Nashville, 1966-'69 (Documentary)

Excerpt from "The Other Side Of Nashville", an undated UA Home Video, probably from approximately 1981.

Interviews with Bob Dylan's producers Bob Johnston and John Hammond, as well as Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. They talk about Bob Dylan's Nashville recordings 1966 to 1969.

Contains footage of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash recording "One Too Many Mornings" in February 1969. 

Other sections of 'The Other Side of Nashville' are posted on YouTube, and listed as 1981. 
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Today on CBC radio in Canada

"Dylan goes electric" - complete 36 minute radio show can be streamed online at the link below.  

"That iconic performance, fifty years ago this month, changed the whole trajectory of pop music, says Rob Bowman, a musicologist and professor at York University in Toronto. Guest host Rachel Giese speaks to Bowman about the significance of Dylan's folk rebellion and his impact on rock n' roll."
Dylan goes electric: Fifty years ago this month, Bob Dylan took the stage at the legendary Newport Folk Festival and changed the face of pop music forever. Musicologist Rob Bowman talks about the significance of that iconic Dylan performance and how it changed the trajectory of pop music.
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I was at this concert. They booed Dylan when he went electric on the second part of this concert. HA...For those who thought he lost his mind....may they bite their tongue. HA. does Dylan care?
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Have them in circles
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Bob Dylan Revisited

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Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs perform a Bob Dylan cover on the TV show 'The Beverly Hillbillies'.

Mama, You Been On My Mind. 


Watch the performance here:


Episode 152 (Season 5, episode 14) "Foggy Mountain Soap". 

Directed by Joseph Depew, written by Paul Henning & Buddy Atkinson.
Originally aired December 14, 1966.

In the episode, Jed and Granny star in a commercial for Foggy Mountain Soap, with Jethro as the director.


From Bob Dylan Roots:

Beginning in 1967, Bob Dylan and his Columbia stable-mate EARL SCRUGGS (with his long-time partner LESTER FLATT) shared a common producer, Bob Johnston, who urged substantial changes in the Flatt & Scruggs traditional bluegrass repertoire.

"Basically, Bob Johnston, with his emphasis on the new breed of singer-songwriters (as opposed to the staunch-traditional country and bluegrass songwriters) contributed to the break-up of Flatt & Scruggs. While Earl Scruggs expressed a growing boredom with traditional bluegrass ("I was playing the same thing over and over every night. I just couldn't stand it any longer."), Lester Flatt felt uneasy with Bob Johnston: "He also cuts Bob Dylan and we would record what he would come up with, regardless of whether I liked it or not. I can't sing Bob Dylan stuff, I mean. Columbia has got Bob Dylan, why did they want me?"  -- Neil V. Rosenberg, Liner notes for "Flatt & Scruggs", Time-Life Records TLCW-04, 1982

Several Dylan songs were covered during their late 1960s recording sessions, until in Aug 1969, Flatt & Scruggs (following a final joint performance at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry on Feb 22, 1969) recorded together for the last time, fulfilling their contractual obligations to Columbia Records.

Mama, You Been On My Mind (May 16, 1966)
Girl From The North Country (May 15, 1967 - unissued/lost)
Don't Think Twice It's All Right (September 21, 1967)
Blowin' In The Wind (September 21, 1967)
It Ain't Me Babe (September 21, 1967)
Down In The Flood (September 26, 1967)
Mr. Tambourine Man (October 20, 1967)
Like A Rolling Stone (July 18, 1968)
I'll Be Your Baby Tonight (September 09, 1968)
Rainy Day Women No. 12 And 35 (September 09, 1968 - unissued/lost)
The Times They Are A-Changin' (September 16, 1968)
Rainy Day Women No. 12 And 35 (September 17, 1968)
Nashville Skyline Rag (August 21, 1969)
Maggie's Farm (August 21, 1969)
Wanted Man (August 21, 1969)
One More Night (August 21, 1969)
One Too Many Mornings (August 22, 1969)
Girl From The North Country (August 22, 1969)
Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance (August 22, 1969)

All tracks released on 1964-1969, Bear Family Records 6-CD set (BCD 15879).

Earl Scruggs continued to experiment with new styles and musical directions. On "Nashville's Rock" (again produced by Bob Johnston), he recorded instrumental versions of "Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word" and "Nashville Skyline Rag" (also covering the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and The Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" and "Something").

Some of the Bob Dylan songs covered by THE EARL SCRUGGS REVUE (a rather rock-oriented group comprising Earl Scruggs and his sons Earl, Gary and Randy) include:

"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry"
"Down In The Flood"
"Tomorrow's A Long Time"
"Watching The River Flow"
and a terrific (IMO) version of
"Song To Woody"
(featuring -- among others -- Johnny Cash and Ramblin' Jack Elliott).

In Dec 1970, Dylan recorded two songs,
"East Virginia Blues"
and "Nashville Skyline Rag,"
with Earl Scruggs and his sons Randy and Gary.

Both songs were broadcast in an NBC Documentary in Jan 1971; "Nashville Skyline Rag" was subsequently officially released on the album "Earl Scruggs Performing With His Family And Friends" (COLUMBIA KC-30584, mid-1971).


Complete documentary - Bob Dylan in the opening sequence:

Earl Scruggs - The Bluegrass Legend - Family & Friends (1972).

Bob Dylan's section information:

The Home Of Thomas B. Allen
Carmel, New York
December 1970
Earl Scruggs Documentary

1. East Virginia Blues (trad.)
2. Nashville Skyline Rag

Bob Dylan (guitar & vocal), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Randy Scruggs (acoustic guitar), Gary Scruggs (electric bass).
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Good Stuff spent a lot of my days listening.....
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Drillin' with Dylan.

Bob Dylan tries a jackhammer, watched by unknown construction workers.

Listed on Getty as:

January 22, 1965
Bob Dylan In Sheridan Square Park
Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah

"Got your steam drill built and you’re lookin’ for some kid
To get it to work for you like your nine-pound hammer did."
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Bob with Pete and Curly.
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Ellen Willis writes about Bob Dylan. 1967

From Wikipedia:

Willis was born in Manhattan to a Jewish family, and grew up in the boroughs of the Bronx and Queens in New York City. Her father was a police lieutenant in the New York City Police Department. Willis attended Barnard College as an undergraduate and did graduate study at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied comparative literature for a semester but left graduate school shortly afterwards.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, she was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker, and later wrote for, among others, the Village Voice, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Slate, and Salon, as well as Dissent, where she was also on the editorial board. She was the author of several books of collected essays.

At the time of her death, she was a professor in the journalism department of New York University and the head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism. She lived in Queens with her husband Stanley Aronowitz and her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz.

On November 9, 2006 she died of lung cancer. Her papers were deposited in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, in the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University in 2008.


Not only one of the finest pieces of writing about Bob Dylan, Ellen Willis's essay for 'Cheetah' in 1967 was outstanding as coming from one of the first groundbreaking women in rock journalism. 

Willis was the first popular music critic for The New Yorker, between 1968 and 1975. As such, she was one of the first American popular music critics to write for a national audience.

The essay below is included in her posthumously released book, ‘Out of the Vinyl Deeps’, co-written with her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Willis, Ellen, and Nona W. Aronowitz. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 0816672822.


“Dylan” – from Cheetah, 1967


Nearly two years ago, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident. Reports of his condition were vague, and he dropped out of sight. Publication of his book, Tarantula, was postponed indefinitely. New records appeared, but they were from his last album, Blonde on Blonde. Gruesome rumors circulated: Dylan was dead; he was badly disfigured; he was paralyzed; he was insane. The cataclysm his audience was always expecting seemed to have arrived. Phil Ochs had predicted that Dylan might someday be assassinated by a fan. Pete Seeger believed Dylan could become the country’s greatest troubadour, if he didn’t explode. Alan Lomax had once remarked that Dylan might develop into a great poet of the times, unless he killed himself first. Now, images of James Dean filled the news vacuum. As months passed, reflex apprehension turned to suspense, then irritation: had we been put on again? We had. Friends began to admit, with smiles, that they’d seen Bobby; he was rewriting his book; he was about to sign a contract with MGM Records. The new rumor was that the accident had been a cover for retreat. After Blonde on Blonde, his intensive foray into the pop demimonde, Dylan needed time to replenish his imagination. According to a less romantic version, he was keeping quiet till his contracts expired.

The confusion was typical. Not since Rimbaud said “I is another” has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity. His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s ultimate antagonist. The original disparity between his public pose as rootless wanderer with southwestern drawl and the private facts of home and middle class Jewish family and high school diploma in Hibbing, Minnesota, was a commonplace subterfuge, the kind that pays reporters’ salaries. It hardly showed his talent for elusiveness; what it probably showed was naiveté. But his attitude toward himself as a public personality was always clear. On an early recording he used the eloquent pseudonym “Blind Boy Grunt.” “Dylan” is itself a pseudonym, possibly inspired by Dylan Thomas (a story Dylan now denies), possibly by a real or imaginary uncle named Dillon, who might or might not be the “Las Vegas dealer” Dylan once claimed was his only living relative.

In six years Dylan’s stance has evolved from proletarian assertiveness to anarchist angst to pop detachment. At each stage he has made himself harder to follow, provoked howls of execration from those left behind, and attracted an ever-larger, more demanding audience. He has reacted with growing hostility to the possessiveness of this audience and its shock troops, the journalists, the professional categorizers. His baroque press conference inventions are extensions of his work, full of imaginative truth and virtually devoid of information. The classic Dylan interview appeared in Playboy, where Nat Hentoff, like a housewife dusting her furniture while a tornado wrecks the house, pursued the homely fact through exchanges like: “Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?” “Well, I guess I’ve always wanted to be Anthony Quinn in La Strada … I guess I’ve always wanted to be Brigitte Bardot, too; but I don’t really want to think about that too much.”

Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity’s ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work. As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future. Bob Dylan as identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants. This terrifies his audiences. They could accept a consistent image — roving minstrel, poet of alienation, spokesman for youth — in lieu of the “real” Bob Dylan. But his progressive self-annihilation cannot be contained in a game of let’s pretend, and it conjures up nightmares of madness, mutilation, death.

The nightmares are chimerical; there is a continuing self, the Bobby Dylan friends describe as shy and defensive, hyped up, careless of his health, a bit scared by fame, unmaterialistic but shrewd about money, a professional absorbed in his craft. Dylan’s songs bear the stigmata of an authentic middle-class adolescence; his eye for detail, sense of humor, and skill at evoking the archetypal sexual skirmishes show that some part of him is of as well as in the world. As further evidence, he has a wife, son, and house in Woodstock, New York. Instead of an image, Dylan has created a magic theater in which the public gets lost willy-nilly. Yet he is more — or less — than the sum of his illusions.

Many people hate Bob Dylan because they hate being fooled. Illusion is fine, if quarantined and diagnosed as mild; otherwise it is potentially humiliating (is he laughing at me? conning me out of my money?). Some still discount Dylan as merely a popular culture hero (how can a teen-age idol be a serious artist — at most, perhaps, a serious demagogue). But the most tempting answer — forget his public presence, listen to his songs — won’t do. For Dylan has exploited his image as a vehicle for artistic statement. The same is true of Andy Warhol and, to a lesser degree, of the Beatles and Allen Ginsberg. (In contrast, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were creatures, not masters, of their images.) The tenacity of the modern publicity apparatus often makes artists’ personalities more familiar than their work, while its pervasiveness obscures the work of those who can’t or won’t be personalities. If there is an audience for images, artists will inevitably use the image as a medium — and some images are more original, more compelling, more relevant than others. Dylan has self-consciously explored the possibilities of mass communication just as the pop artists explored the possibilities of mass production. In the same sense that pop art is about commodities, Dylan’s art is about celebrity.

This is not to deny the intrinsic value of Dylan’s songs. Everyone interested in folk and popular music agrees on their importance, if not their merit. As composer, interpreter, most of all as lyricist, Dylan has made a revolution. He expanded folk idiom into a rich, figurative language, grafted literary and philosophical subtleties onto the protest song, revitalized folk vision by rejecting proletarian and ethnic sentimentality, then all but destroyed pure folk as a contemporary form by merging it with pop. Since then rock-and-roll, which was already in the midst of a creative flowering dominated by British rock and Motown, has been transformed. Songwriters have raided folk music as never before for new sounds, new images, new subject matter. Dylan’s innovative lyrics have been enthusiastically imitated. The folk music lovers who managed to evolve with him, the connoisseurs of pop, the bohemian fringe of the literary community, hippies, and teen-agers consider him a genius, a prophet. Folk purists and political radicals, who were inspired by his earlier material, cry betrayal with a vehemence that acknowledges his gifts.

Yet many of Dylan’s fans — especially ex-fans — miss the point. Dylan is no apostle of the electronic age. Rather, he is a fifth-columnist from the past, shaped by personal and political nonconformity, by blues and modern poetry. He has imposed his commitment to individual freedom (and its obverse, isolation) on the hip passivity of pop culture, his literacy on an illiterate music. He has used the publicity machine to demonstrate his belief in privacy. His songs and public role are guides to survival in the world of the image, the cool, and the high. And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced it to come to terms with him.


By 1960 the folk music revival that began in the fifties had expanded into an all inclusive smorgasbord, with kitschy imitation-folk groups at one end, resurrected cigarbox guitarists and Ozark balladeers at the other. Of music that pretended to ethnic authenticity, the most popular was folk blues — Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins. The response to blues was in part a tribute to the ascendancy of rock-and-roll — Negro rhythms had affected the consciousness of every teen-ager in the fifties. But blues, unlike rock, was free of identification with the dominant society. Its sexuality and rebelliousness were undiluted, and it was about people, not teen-agers. Besides, the Negro, always a dual symbol of suffering and life force, was gaining new political importance, and folk blues expressed the restlessness of activists, bohemians, déclassé intellectuals. Since younger Negro performers were not interested in preserving a genre they had abandoned for more distinctly urban forms, white city singers tried to fill the gap. Patronized unmercifully by blues purists, the best of them did not simply approximate Negro sounds but evoked personal pain and disenchantment with white culture.

At the same time there was a surge of folk composing. The Weavers, in the vanguard of the revival, had popularized the iconoclastic ballads and talking blues of Woody Guthrie, chronicler of the dust bowl and the Depression, the open road, the unions, the common man as intrepid endurer. Pete Seeger, the Weavers’ lead singer in the early days and the most prestigious folk musician in the country, had recorded albums of topical songs from the thirties and forties. With the emergence of the civil rights movement, freedom songs, some new, some updated spirituals and union chants, began coming out of the South. Northern musicians began to write and perform their own material, mainly variations on the hard-traveling theme and polemics against racism, the bomb and middle-class conformity. Guthrie was their godfather, Seeger their guru, California songwriter Malvina Reynolds their older sister. Later, they were to acquire an angel — Joan Baez, who would record their songs and sing them at racial demonstrations and peace rallies; an organ — Broadside, a mimeographed magazine founded in 1962; and a sachem — Bob Dylan.

Gerde’s Folk City, an unassuming, unbohemian cabaret in Greenwich Village, was the folk fans’ chief New York hangout. On Monday, hootenanny night, blues interpreters like Dave Van Ronk, bluegrass groups like the Greenbriar Boys, the new topical songwriters — Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Len Chandler — would stop in and perform. Established singers came because Gerde’s was part of the scene, because they enjoyed playing to the aficionados who gathered after midnight. The young ones came for a showcase and for contact with musicians they admired.

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s in the spring of 1961, fresh-skinned and baby-faced and wearing a schoolboy’s corduroy cap, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen, only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he had been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie cum Elliott; Blind Lemon Jefferson cum Leadbelly cum Van Ronk; the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs — especially blues — were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and cap, burlesquing his own mannerisms, and simply enjoying himself. His specialty was composing lightly sardonic talking blues — chants to a bass-run guitar accompaniment, a favorite vehicle of Woody Guthrie’s: “Them Communists were all around/ in the air and on the ground/ … I run down most hurriedly/ and joined the John Birch society.”

That fall, New York Times folk music critic Robert Shelton visited Gerde’s and gave Dylan an enthusiastic review. Columbia Records signed him and released a mediocre first album in February 1962. It contained only two Dylan compositions, both nonpolitical. Dylan began publishing his topical songs in Broadside. Like his contemporaries, he was more propagandist than artist, his syntax often barbarous, his diction crude. Even so, his work stood out — it contained the most graphic descriptions of racial atrocities. But Dylan also had a gentler mood. Road songs like “Song to Woody” strove — not too successfully — for Guthrie’s expressive understatement and simple, traditional sound.

In May 1962, Broadside published a new Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Set to a melody adapted from a spiritual, it combined indignation with Guthriesque simplicity and added a touch of original imagery. It received little circulation until nearly a year later, when Peter, Paul and Mary heard Dylan sing it at a coffeehouse. Their recording of the song sold a million copies, inspired more than fifty other versions, and established topical song as the most important development of the folk revival. The relative subtlety of the lyric made the topical movement aesthetically self-conscious. It did not drive out direct political statements — Dylan himself continued to write them — but it set a standard impossible to ignore, and topical songs began to show more wit, more craftsmanship, more variety.“Blowin’ in the Wind” was included in Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which appeared in May 1963. This time, nearly all the songs were his own; five had political themes. It was an extraordinary record. The influences had coalesced; the voice, unmusical as ever, had found an evocative range somewhere between abrasion and sentimentality; the lyrics (except for “Masters of War,” a simplistic diatribe against munitions-makers) were vibrant and pithy. The album contained what may still be Dylan’s best song — “It’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a vivid evocation of nuclear apocalypse that owed much to Allen Ginsberg’s biblical rhetoric and declamatory style. Its theme was modern, its spirit ancient. At first hearing, most of the Freewheelin’ songs sounded less revolutionary than they were: so skillfully had Dylan distilled the forms and moods of traditional music that his originality took time to register.

Freewheelin’ illuminated Dylan’s America — or rather, two Americas. “Hard Rain” confronted the underside, “where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden,” “where black is the color and none is the number,” a world of deserted diamond highways, incipient tidal waves, clowns crying in alleys, children armed with guns and swords, “10,000 whisperin and nobody listenin” and occasional portents of redemption: “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.” The satirical “Talking World War III Blues” toured the country’s surface: hot dog stands, parking meters, Cadillacs, rockand-roll singers, telephone operators, cool females, officious doctors. Dylan’s moral outrage coexisted with a grudging affection for American society and its foibles. If there was “Masters of War,” there was also “I Shall Be Free”: “My telephone rang, it would not stop, it was President Kennedy callin me up./ He said my friend Bob what do we need to make this country grow I said my friend John, Brigitte Bardot.”

For a time the outrage predominated. Dylan’s output of bitter protest increased and his humor receded. He was still learning from Woody Guthrie, but he often substituted despair for Guthrie’s resilience: his finest ballads chronicled the disintegration of an unemployed miner’s family; the killing of a Negro maid, punished by a six-month sentence; the extremity of a penniless farmer who shot himself, his wife, and five kids. At the same time his prophetic songs discarded the pessimism of “Hard Rain” for triumph in “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and vindictiveness in “When the Ship Comes In”: “Then they’ll raise their hands, say we’ll meet all your demands, and we’ll shout from the bow, your days are numbered.”

It was Dylan’s year. Stimulated by the wide acceptance of his work, inspired by his ideas and images, topical songwriters became more and more prolific. Dylan songs were recorded by dozens of folk singers, notably Joan Baez (at whom he had once sneered, “She’s still singing about Mary Hamilton. Where’s that at?”). No folk concert was complete without “Hard Rain,” or “Don’t Think Twice,” or a protest song from Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’. The college folk crowd imitated Dylan; civil rights workers took heart from him; masochistic journalists lionized him.

And in the attenuated versions of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, even Lawrence Welk, his songs reached the fraternity house and the suburb. Then Dylan yanked the rug: he renounced political protest. He put out an album of personal songs and in one of them, “My Back Pages,” scoffed at his previous moral absolutism. His refrain — “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” — seemed a slap at the thirties left. And the song contained scraps of uncomfortably private imagery — hints of aesthetic escapism?

Folk devotees were shocked at Dylan’s apostasy. Folk music and social protest have always fed on each other, and the current revival had been political all along. For children of Depression activists growing up in the Eisenhower slough, folk music was a way of keeping the faith. When they converged on the Weavers’ Town Hall hootenannies, they came as the anti-McCarthy resistance, pilgrims to the thirties shrine. The Weavers were blacklisted for alleged Communist connections; Pete Seeger had been there, singing for the unions, for the Spanish Republic. It didn’t matter what they sang — in the atmosphere of conspiratorial sympathy that permeated those performances, even “Greensleeves” had radical overtones. Later, as the left revived, folk singing became a badge of involvement, an expression of solidarity, and most important, a history-in-the-raw of struggle. Now, Dylan’s defection threatened the last aesthetically respectable haven for believers in proletarian art.

Dylan had written personal songs before, but they were songs that accepted folk conventions. Narrative in impulse, nostalgic but restless in mood, their central image the road and its imperative, they complemented his protest songs: here was an outlaw, unable to settle for one place, one girl, a merely private life, committed to that symbolic onward journey. His new songs were more psychological, limning characters and relationships. They substituted ambition for the artless perfection of his best early songs; “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” a gloss on the spiritual possessiveness of woman, took three stanzas to say what “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” had suggested in a few phrases: “I’m thinkin and wonderin, walkin down the road/ I once loved a woman, a child I’m told/ gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.”

Dylan’s language was opening up— doves sleeping in the sand were one thing, “crimson flames tied through my ears” quite another. And his tone was changing: in his love songs, ingenuousness began to yield to self-possession, the spontaneity of the road to the gamesmanship of the city. They were transitional songs, full of half-realized ideas; having rejected the role of people’s bard, Dylan had yet to find a new niche.


In retrospect, Dylan’s break with the topical song movement seemed inevitable. He had modeled himself on Woody Guthrie, whose incessant traveling was an emotional as well as economic necessity, whose commitment to radical politics was rooted in an individualism as compulsive as Dylan’s own. But Guthrie had had to organize or submit; Dylan had other choices. For Guthrie, the road was habitat; for Dylan, metaphor. The closing of the iron mines had done to Hibbing what drought had done to Guthrie’s Oklahoma, but while Guthrie had been a victim, Dylan was a bystander. A voluntary refugee from middle-class life, more aesthete than activist, he had less in common with the left than with literary rebels — Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Crane, Ginsberg.

The beauty of “Hard Rain” was that it exploited poetry while remaining a folk lyric, simple, repetitive, seemingly uncontrived. Now Dylan became self-consciously poetic, adopting a neo-beat style loaded with images. Though he had rejected the traditional political categories, his new posture was if anything more scornful of the social order than before. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” attacked both the “human gods” who “make everything from toy guns that spark to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark” and their acquiescent victims. “Gates of Eden,” like “Hard Rain,” descended into a surreal netherworld, the menace this time a psychic bomb, the revolt of repressed instinct. As poetry these songs were overrated — Howl had said it all much better — and they were unmusical, near-chants declaimed to a monotonous guitar strum. Yet the perfunctory music made the bohemian commonplaces work — made them fresh. Perhaps it was the context: though few people realized it yet, the civil rights movement was losing its moral force; the Vietnam juggernaut was becoming the personal concern of every draftable man; a new generation of bohemians, more expansive and less cynical than the beats, was about to blossom. The time was right for a reaffirmation of individual revolt.

But Dylan had also been exposed to a very different vision: in May 1964, he had toured an England transformed by mod fashion and the unprecedented excitement over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When his new record came out the following spring, its title was Bringing It All Back Home. On the album jacket a chiaroscuro Dylan, bright face emerging from ominous shadows, stared accusingly at the viewer. In black suit and striped shirt, he perched on a long divan, hugging a cat, behind him a modish, blankfaced beauty in scarlet lounging pajamas. The room, wreathed in light and dominated by a baroque mantelpiece, abounded with artifacts — Time, a movie magazine, a fallout shelter sign, folk and pop records (including earlier Dylan), a portrait, a candlestick, a few mysterious objects obscured by the halo.

Most of side one was devoted to “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma.” But the most arresting cut on the side was “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a hymn to the psychedelic quest: “take me disappearing through the smoke-rings of my mind…. take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship.” Drug-oriented bohemians loved it; it was another step away from the sobersided politicals. It was also more like a folk song than anything Dylan had written since giving up politics, a spiritual road song with a lilting, singable melody.

The other side was rock-and-roll, Dylan on electric guitar and piano backed by a five-man band. It was not hard rock. There was no over-dubbing, and Dylan played his amplified guitar folk-style. But the beat was there, and the sound, if not overwhelming, was big enough to muffle some of the lyrics. These dispensed a new kind of folk wisdom. Chaos had become a condition, like the weather, not to analyze or prophesy but to gripe about, cope with, dodge: “Look out, kid, it’s somethin you did/ God knows when but you’re doin it again.” The message was pay attention to what’s happening: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin meters.”

One rock song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” was released as a single. As Dylan’s pop debut, it was a modest success, hovering halfway up the Cash Box and Billboard charts. That summer, Dylan cut “Like a Rolling Stone,” the most scurrilous and — with its powerful beat — the most dramatic in a long line of non-love songs. It was a number-one hit, as “Blowin’ in the Wind” had been two years before — only now it was Dylan’s own expressive snarl coming over radio and jukebox.

“Like a Rolling Stone” opened Dylan’s first all-rock album, Highway 61 Revisited. More polished but less daring than Bringing It All Back Home, the album reworked familiar motifs. The title song, which depicted the highway as junkyard, temple, and battlefield, was Dylan’s best face-of-America commentary since “Talking World War III Blues.” The witty and scarifying “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which derided the rationalist bewildered by the instinctual revolt, was an updated “Times They Are A Changin’,” with battle lines redrawn according to pop morality. Dylan did not hail the breakdown of sanity he described but merely kept his cool, mocking Mr. Jones (the pop equivalent of Mr. Charlie) for committing squareness: “The sword-swallower he comes up to you and then he kneels/ … and he says here is your throat back, thanks for the loan/ and something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

“Desolation Row” was Dylan’s final tribute to the Götterdämmerung strain in modern literature — an eleven-minute freak show whose cast of losers, goons, and ghosts wandered around in a miasma of sexual repression and latent violence underscored by the electronic beat.The violent hostility of traditionalists to Dylan’s rock-and-roll made the uproar over “My Back Pages” seem mild. Not only orthodox leftists but bohemian radicals called him a sellout and a phony. At the July 1965 Newport Folk Festival he appeared with his electric guitar and was booed off the stage. Alan Lomax, America’s foremost authority on folk song, felt Dylan had chucked his artistry for a big audience and forsaken a mature culture for one that was evanescent and faddish. Tom Paxton, dean of the new crop of topical songwriters, commented: “‘Where it’s at’ is a synonym for ”rich.’“

Defiantly, Dylan exacerbated the furor, insisting on his contempt for message songs and his indifference to causes, refusing to agonize over his wealth or his taxes (“Uncle Sam, he’s my uncle! Can’t turn your back on a member of the family!”). In one notorious interview he claimed he had written topical songs only to get published in Broadside and attract attention. Many former fans took the bait. Actually, Dylan’s work still bristled with messages; his “opportunism” had absorbed three years of his life and produced the finest extensions of traditional music since Guthrie. But the purists believed in it because they wanted to. Their passion told less about Dylan than about their own peculiar compound of aristocratic and proletarian sensitivities.

Pure folk sound and idiom, in theory the expression of ordinary people, had become the province of middle-class dissidents who identified with the common man but whose attitude toward common men resembled that of White Russian expatriates toward the communized peasants. For them popular music — especially rock-and-roll — symbolized the displacement of the true folk by the mass. Rock was not created by the people but purveyed by the communications industry. The performer was incidental to engineer and publicity man. The beat was moronic, the lyrics banal teenage trivia.These were half-truths. From the beginning, there was a bottom-up as well as top-down movement in rock-and-roll: neighborhood kids formed groups and wrote songs; country singers adopted a rhythm-and-blues beat. Rock took a mechanized, acquisitive society for granted, yet in its own way it was protest music, uniting teenagers against adults’ lack of sympathy with youthful energy and love and sex. The mediocrity of most performers only made rock more “authentic” — anyone could sing it — and one of the few remaining vindications of the American dream — any kid from the slums might become a millionaire. (The best singers, of course, were fine interpreters; Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry did not have golden voices, but neither did Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie.) Rock-and-roll was further from the grass roots than traditional music, but closer than any other kind of pop. If folk fans did not recognize this, the average adult did, and condemned the music for its adolescent surliness and its sexuality, covert in the lyrics, overt in the beat and in the intense response to idols.

But it remained for the British renaissance to prove that the mainstream of mass culture could produce folk music — that is, antiestablishment music. The Beatles, commercial without apology, delighted in the Americanized decadence of their environment. Yet their enthusiasm was subversive — they endorsed the reality of the culture, not its official myths. The Rolling Stones were iconoclastic in a different way: deliberately ugly, blatantly erotic, they exuded contempt for the public while making a fortune. Their cynicism, like Leadbelly’s violence or Charlie Parker’s heroin, was part of their charisma. Unlike traditional folk singers, they could cheerfully censor their lyrics for Ed Sullivan without seeming domesticated — the effect was more as if they had paraded a sign saying “Blank CBS.” British rock was far superior to most early rockand-roll.

Times had changed: electronic techniques were more sophisticated, radio stations and record companies less squeamish about sexual candor, and teen culture was merging into a more mature, less superficial youth culture with semibohemian tastes. Most important, the British groups successfully assimilated Negro music, neither vitiating rhythm-and-blues nor imitating it, but refining it to reflect their own milieu — white, urban, technological, materialistic, tough-minded.

Most folk fans — even those with no intrinsic objections to rock, who had perhaps listened to it when they were teen-agers and not obliged to be serious — assumed that commercial exploitation automatically gutted music. Yet the Stones were creating blues as valid as the work of any folk singers, black or white. After Bringing It All Back Home, the contradiction could no longer be ignored, and those not irrevocably committed to the traditional folk ethos saw the point. Phil Ochs praised Highway 61; Joan Baez cut a rock-and-roll record; more and more folk singers began to use electronic instruments. Folk-rock generated an unaccustomed accord between the folk and pop worlds. In Crawdaddy! Richard Fariña lauded “this shift away from open-road-protest flat-pick-style to more Nashville-Motown-Thameside, with the strong implication that some of us had been listening to the A.M. radio.” Malvina Reynolds pronounced the new rock-and-roll “a wonder and delight.” By November 1966, folk-rock had received the final imprimatur — Pete Seeger recorded an album backed by three members of the Blues Project.

Folk-rock was never a form, but a simpleminded inspiration responsible for all sorts of hybrids. At first it was mostly rock versions of Dylan folk songs, social protest rock, and generational trauma rock, a weekend-hippie version of the classic formula, children against parents. Then, self-styled musical poets Simon and Garfunkel began imitating Dylan’s apocalyptic songs (“The words of the prophets are written on a subway wall”), starting a trend to elaborate and, too often, sophomoric lyrics. The Lovin’ Spoonful invented the “good-time sound,” a varying mixture of rock, blues, jug, and old pop. Donovan wrote medieval fantasies and pop collages like “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.” And there was acid-rock, the music of new bohemia.

Psychedelic music, like folk-rock, was a catchall label; it described a variety of products shaped by folk, British rock. Chicago blues, jazz, Indian music. psychedelic lyrics, heavily influenced by Dylanesque imagery, used the conventions of the romantic pop song to express sexual and mystical rather than sentimental love and focused on the trip — especially the flight — the way folk music focused on the road. The Byrds, who had started folk-rock moving with their hit record of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” launched the California psychedelic sound with “Eight Miles High,” which picked up on the Beatles’ experiments with Indian instrumentation and was ostensibly about flying over London airport (it was banned anyway by right-thinking disc jockeys).
Though the Byrds were from Los Angeles, the scene soon shifted north, and a proliferation of underground rock groups — some, like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Country Joe and the Fish, quickly surfaced — made San Francisco the new center of avant-garde pop, superseding Britain. The California groups came closest to making the term folk-rock say something.

For hippie culture, bastard of the beat generation out of pop, was much like a folk culture — oral, naive, communal, its aphorisms (“Make love, not war,” “Turn on, tune in, drop out”) intuited, not rationalized. Pop and beat, thesis and antithesis of the affluent society, contained elements of synthesis: both movements rejected intellect for sensation, politics for art, and Ginsberg and Kerouac glorified a grass-roots America that included supermarkets and cars as well as mountains and apple pie. The hippies simplified the beats’ utopian anarchism and substituted psychedelic drugs for Zen and yoga; they also shared the pop enthusiasm for technology and the rainbow surface of affluence — their music was rock, their style mod. Like Dylan, they bridged old culture and new — they were still idealists — and they idolized him. But he did not consider himself their spokesman. At twenty-five, he was too old (“How can I be the voice of their generation? I’m not their generation”) and, though he did not admit it publicly, too well-read. While “Mr. Tambourine Man” was becoming the hippie anthem, he was saying “LSD is for mad, hateful people” and making fun of drugs in “Memphis Blues Again.” Dylan was really at cross-purposes with the hippies. They were trying to embody pop sensibility in a folk culture. He was trying to comprehend pop culture with — at bottom — a folk sensibility.


It is a truism among Dylan’s admirers that he is a poet using rock-and-roll to spread his art: as Jack Newfield put it in the Village Voice, “If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar.” This misrepresentation has only served to discredit Dylan among intellectuals and draw predictable sniping from conscientious Bstudent poets like Louis Simpson and John Ciardi. Dylan has a lavish verbal imagination and a brilliant sense of irony, and many of his images — especially on the two Blonde on Blonde records — are memorable. But poetry also requires economy, coherence, and discrimination, and Dylan has perpetrated prolix verses, horrendous grammar, tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés, muddled thought; at times he seems to believe one good image deserves five others, and he relies too much on rhyme. His chief literary virtue — sensitivity to psychological nuance — belongs to fiction more than poetry. His skill at creating character has made good lyrics out of terrible poetry, as in the prerock “Ballad in Plain D,” whose portraits of the singer, his girl, and her family redeem lines like: “With unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip/ a magnificent mantelpiece though its heart being chipped.”

Dylan is not always undisciplined. As early as Freewheelin’, it was clear that he could control his material when he cared to. But his disciplines are songwriting and acting, not poetry; his words fit the needs of music and performance, not an intrinsic pattern. Words or rhymes that seem gratuitous in print often make good musical sense, and Dylan’s voice, an extraordinary interpreter of emotion though (or more likely because) it is almost devoid of melody, makes vague lines clear. Dylan’s music is not inspired. His melodies and arrangements are derivative, and his one technical accomplishment, a vivacious, evocative harmonica, does not approach the virtuosity of a Sonny Terry. His strength as a musician is his formidable eclecticism combined with a talent for choosing the right music to go with a given lyric. The result is a unity of sound and word that eludes most of his imitators.

Dylan is effective only when exploiting this unity, which is why his free-verse album notes are interesting mainly as autobiography (or mythology) and why Tarantula is unlikely to be a masterpiece. When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean a visionary. Because the poet is the paradigmatic seer, it is conventional to talk about the film poet, the jazz poet. Dylan is verbal, which makes the label even more tempting. But it evades an important truth — the new visionaries are not poets. Dylan is specifically pessimistic about the future of literature. Far from Desolation Row, “The Titanic sails at dawn/ … Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s towers/ while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.” The infamous Mr. Jones, with his pencil in his hand, his eyes in his pocket, and his nose on the ground, is a literary man. With the rock songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan began trying to create an alternative to poetry. If Whitman were alive today, he might be playing electric guitar; then again, he might be writing advertising copy.

In May 1966, Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde, a double album cut in Nashville with local musicians. Formally, it was his finest achievement since Freewheelin’, but while the appeal of the Freewheelin’ songs was the illusion of spontaneous folk expression, the songs from Blonde on Blonde were clearly artifacts, lovingly and carefully made. The music was rock and Nashville country, with a sprinkling of blues runs and English-ballad arpeggios. Thematically, the album was a unity. It explored the subworld pop was creating, an exotic milieu of velvet doors and scorpions, cool sex (“I saw you makin love with him,/ you forgot to close the garage door”), zany fashions (“it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine,/ your brandnew leopard-skin pillbox hat”), strange potions (“it strangled up my mind,/ now people just get uglier and I have no sense of time”), neurotic women (“she’s like all the rest/ with her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls”).

The songs did not preach: Dylan was no longer rebel but seismograph, registering his emotions — fascination, confusion, pity, annoyance, exuberance, anguish — with sardonic lucidity. Only once, in “Just like a Woman,” did his culture shock get out of control: “I can’t stay in here/ ain’t it clear/ that I just can’t fit.” Many of the songs were about child-women, bitchy, unreliable, sometimes vulnerable, usually one step ahead: “I told you as you clawed out my eyes/ I never really meant to do you any harm.” But there were also goddesses like Johanna and the mercury-mouthed, silkenfleshed Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Beatrices of pop who shed not merely light but kaleidoscopic images.

The fashionable, sybaritic denizens of Blonde on Blonde are the sort of people despised by radicals as apologists for the system. Yet in accepting the surface that system has produced, they subvert its assumptions. Conservative and utopian ideologues agree that man must understand and control his environment; the questions are how, and for whose benefit. But pop culture defines man as a receiver of stimuli, his environment as sensory patterns to be enjoyed, not interpreted (literature and philosophy are irrelevant) or acted upon (politics is irrelevant). “If you want to understand me, look at my surface,” says Andy Warhol. And “I like my paintings because anybody can do them.” The bureaucrat defends standardization because it makes a complex society manageable. Yet he thinks of himself as an individualist, and finds the idea of mass-produced, mechanized art incomprehensible, threatening — or a put-on. The pop artist looks at mass culture naively and sees beauty in its regular patterns; like an anthropologist exhibiting Indian basket-weaving, Warhol shows us our folk art — soup cans. His message — the Emperor has no clothes, but that’s all right, in fact it’s beautiful — takes acceptance of image for essence to its logical extreme. Blonde on Blonde is about this love of surface.

Dylan’s sensitivity to pop comes straight out of his folk background. Both folk and pop mentalities are leery of abstractions, and Dylan’s appreciation of surface detail represents Guthriesque common sense — to Dylan, a television commercial was always a television commercial as well as a symbol of alienation. From the first, a basic pragmatism tempered his commitment to the passionate excesses of the revolutionist and the pote maudit and set him apart from hipster heroes like James Dean. Like the beats, who admired the total revolt of the hipster from a safe distance, Dylan is essentially nonviolent. Any vengefulness in his songs is either impersonal or funny, like the threats of a little boy to beat up the bad guys; more often, he is the bemused butt of slapstick cruelty: “I’ve got a woman, she’s so mean/ sticks my boots in the washing machine/ sticks me with buckshot when I’m nude/ puts bubble gum in my food.”

Dylan’s basic rapport with reality has also saved him from the excesses of pop, kept him from merging, Warhol-like, into his public surface. John Wesley Harding, released after twenty months of silence, shows that Dylan is still intact in spirit as well as body. The songs are more impersonal — and in a way more inscrutable — than ever, yet the human being behind them has never seemed less mysterious. For they reveal Dylan not as the protean embodiment of some collective nerve, but as an alert artist responding to challenge from his peers. If Dylan’s first rock-and-roll songs were his reaction to the cultural changes the new rock represented, John Wesley Harding is a reaction to the music itself as it has evolved since his accident. The album is comprehensible only in this context.

As Dylan’s recovery advanced, he began making the papers again. He signed a new contract with Columbia — the defection to MGM never came off — and the company announced that he was recording. Dylan was still revered, his near-mythic status only solidified by his long absence from the scene. But whether he could come back as an active performer was another question. Shortly after the appearance of Blonde on Blonde, three important albums — the Beatles’ Revolver, the Stones’ Aftermath, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds — had all set new standards of musical ambition and pretension. Ever since, the “serious” rock groups had been producing albums that said, in effect, “Can you top this? “ — a competition that extended to album covers and titles. In the spring of 1967 the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, possibly the most elaborate rock album ever made and certainly the most celebrated. It was reported that Dylan had listened to the first few cuts of Sgt. Pepper and snapped “Turn that off!”; perhaps the new developments in rock — which he had done so much to inspire — had left him behind. On the other hand, perhaps he was leaving rock behind. Many of Dylan’s associates — notably Tom Wilson, his former A&R man — had always insisted that Dylan was much more sophisticated musically than he let on. And in May a New York Daily News reporter quoted Dylan as saying he was at work on “two new sounds.”

By Christmas the Stones were first in the pretensions sweepstakes — Their Satanic Majesties Request, with its 3-D cover, was almost a parody of the whole art-rock phenomenon. How was Dylan going to top that? Everyone waited for a revolutionary masterpiece or an extravagant flop. What we got was John Wesley Harding in a plain gray jacket with a polaroid snapshot of Dylan and three Indians in the country. The first sound to greet the eager listener was the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The first line of the first song was “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor.” Dylan had done it again.

The new melodies are absurdly simple, even for Dylan; the only instruments backing his guitar, piano, and harmonica are a bass, a drum, and in two songs an extra guitar; the rock beat has faded out and the country and English ballad strains now dominate. The titles are all as straight as “John Wesley Harding”: most are taken from the first lines of the songs. The lyrics are not only simple but understated in a way that shows Dylan has learned a trick or two from Lennon-McCartney, and they are folk lyrics. Or more precisely, affectionate comments on folk lyrics — the album is not a reversion to his early work but a kind of hymn to it. Nearly all the songs play with the clichÉs of folk music. The title song, for instance, seems at first hearing to be a second rate “Jesse James” or “Pretty Boy Floyd.” It starts out with all the catch phrases about the benevolent outlaw, then goes into the story: “It was down in Cheney County the time they talk about/ With his lady by his side he took a stand.” But the next line goes right out of it again: “And soon the situation there was all but straightened out.” You never learn what happened in Cheney County or why it wasn’t entirely straightened out, and the song ends with more stock lines about the bandit’s elusiveness and the helplessness of the law. It is not about John Wesley Harding, but about a familiar formula: and this, friends, is how you write the generic outlaw song. Several of the songs are folk-style fantasies. “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is both a folk ballad (based on another stock situation, the gambler on the road) and one of Dylan’s surrealist dream songs; “As I Walked Out One Morning” describes a run-in with an Arthurian enchantress as if she were a revenue agent or the farmer’s daughter. This juxtaposition of the conventional and the fantastic produces an unsettling gnomic effect, enhanced in some cases by truncated endings — in “The Drifter’s Escape,” the drifter’s trial for some unknown offense ends abruptly when lightning strikes the courthouse and he gets away in the confusion; “All along the Watchtower” ends with a beginning, “Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” The aura of the uncanny that these songs create is probably what Dylan meant when he remarked, years ago, that folk songs grew out of mysteries. But some of the album is sheer fun, especially “Down Along the Cove,” a jaunty blues banged out on the piano, and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a thirties-type pop tune that rhymes “moon” with “spoon” for the benefit of those pundits who are always crowing over the demise of “Tin Pan Alley pap.” And “Dear Landlord,” the best cut musically, is further evidence that Dylan has — well, the only word for it is mellowed: “Now each of us has his own special gift and you know this was meant to be true,/ And if you don’t underestimate me I won’t underestimate you.”

In the end, what this album is about is Dylan’s reconciliation with his past, with ordinary people, and even— warily, ambivalently — with his archenemies, the landlords of the world.Of course, being Bob Dylan, he has turned this reconciliation into a rebellion. His sudden removal of the mask — see, it’s me, a songwriter, I just want to write nice songs — and the apparent step backward could be as traumatic for the public as his previous metamorphoses; Dylan is still in the business of shaking us up. John Wesley Hardingdoes not measure up to Blonde on Blonde. It is basically a tour de force. But it serves its purpose, which is to liberate Dylan — and the rest of us — from the Sgt. Pepper straitjacket. Dylan is free now to work on his own terms. It would be foolish to predict what he will do next. But I hope he will remain a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it. If the gap between past and present continues to widen, such mediation may be crucial. In a communications crisis, the true prophets are the translators.

Notes to Prologue

1 When I wrote this piece (and a few others in the book), I had not yet stopped using “man,” “he,” etc., as generic terms applying to both sexes. In the interest of historical accuracy I’ve left these locutions intact, though they grate on me aesthetically as well as politically. For the same reason I have not changed “Negro” to “black.”

2 Here as elsewhere in this prefeminist essay I refer with aplomb if not outright endorsement to Dylan’s characteristic bohemian contempt for women (which he combined with an equally obnoxious idealization of female goddess figures). At the time I did not question the idea that women were guardians of oppressive conventional values; I only thought of myself as an exception. I was not possessive; I understood men’s need to go on the road because I was, spiritually speaking, on the road myself. That, at least, was my fantasy; the realities of my life were somewhat more ambiguous.

3 This statement now strikes me as absurd, a confusion of aesthetic sophistication and self-consciousness with merit in some absolute sense. It makes even less sense when applied to the best mid-sixties British rock versus the best early rock-and-roll. Precisely because they had a more spontaneous, direct relation to their material and their audience, performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis got to places that the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who never even tried to reach. The reverse is also true, of course.

(c) Ellen Willis
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Bob Dylan Revisited

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My Heart's In The Highlands - Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Robert Burns

Woody Guthrie wrote a letter entitled 'To That Man Robert Burns', dated June 9, 1947 (reprinted in Born To Win, p213-215). 

Guthrie, Woody, and Robert Shelton. Born to Win. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

In his letter-poem, Woody Guthrie points out the similarities between himself and Robert Burns, and the deep connection he felt to the Scot, as well as reminiscing about visiting Scotland as a torpedoed seaman in WWII.

To That Man Robert Burns

Dear Robert Burns

You skipped the big town streets just like I done, you ducked the crosstown cop just like I ducked, you dodged behind a beanpole to beat the bigtime dick and you very seldom stopped off in any big city where the rigged corn wasn't drying not the hot vine didn't help you do your talking.

Your talking was factual figures of the biggest sort, though. Your talking had the graphboard and the chart and had something else most singers seem to miss, the very kiss of warm dew on the stalk.

Your words turned into songs and floated upstream and then turned into rains and drifted down and lodged and swung and clung to drifts of driftwood to warm and heat and fertilize new seeds. Your words were of the upheath and the down, your words were more from heather than from town. Your thoughts came more from weather than from schoolroom and more from shifting vines than from the book.

I go to the church halfway between the farm and halfway into the town and halfway back. I sing and dance at just one altar only and cry with the folks that would like to be more fertile. If there's a bench I kneel down to laugh and cry on, I suppose it's this bench with the kids waiting along it while us dads and us mamas stamp and stomp around looking for something to give our trip more sense. I worship in the limbroof arbors of pure fertility and very little else makes sense to me.Like Robert Burns and Jesus and some others I believe we ought to learn how to make a law or two to help us brothers love the sisters more.

I bought your little four-inch square book when I was a torpedoed seaman walking around over your clods and sods of Glasgow and the little book says on the outer cover, Fifty Songs of Burns, the price 4d, and I read from page to page and found you covered a woman on every page. I thought as I picked the book up here at home that maybe the book ought to have some kind of a new name. Like, Fifty Pages of Fifty Women, enlarged upon by Robert Burns.

Well, Rob, it's awfully rainy here in Coney today. Been drizzling like this now for several days to make some folks happy and some folks sad, since this is a big resort town and folks pay good money to come here from all over. Some like the rain today and some folks hate it. I like it and love it for several reasons, like you'd love it, to see our new seeds grow in this old trashy back yard, and to see these green shoots, roots, limbs and leaves start dancing like Tirza and her Wine Bath. And because Marjorie just painted some flowers of a wild and jumpy color on the pink wall of the baby's room so when he does squirm his way out here to see his light of the day he'll see some twisting flowers like you seen all around your rock hearths and heatherhills there all over your Scotland. This rain is making the grass and flowers spud out, the roots to crawl like guerrillas, and the house to take a better shape, so's our little shoot and shaver can have these growing limbs to give him such a good fast start that maybe he can grow up in four years with us giving him pushes to be has happy and dancy and glad and joking and pretty as our little Stackybones was on that Sunday's afternoon when she got dressed up her very prettiest in her pinkest dress and greenest ribbon to look just as nice and sweet and glad and pretty as any of your fifty girls you raved about. And fifty times fifty. The only good prt about living you really did miss, Bob, was not to get to stick around a house like Marjorie keeps and see a kid like Cathy dance and grow. You died at thirty-four which was a bit too young for you to get to see these things I'm seeing in the faces of my kids.

This is why I'll keep you posted and brought up to date as the year leafs out and me and Marjorie have more kids of the kinds you missed out on.
                                --Woody Guthrie, June 9, 1947


Bob Dylan has also gone public about his admiration for the Scottish bard.

In 2008. as part of HMV's My Inspiration campaign, Bob Dylan chose A Red, Red Rose as the piece of literature that most inspired him. The poem was written by Robert Burns in 1794.

"O, my luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my luve's like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune."

Bob Dylan recorded his song Highlands in January 1997 as part of his Time Out Of Mind recording sessions. 

Criteria Studios
Miami, Florida
January 1997
Time Out Of Mind sessions. Produced by Daniel Lanois and Jack Frost.

In the songs, the repeated line as Dylan rambles through a mixture of sentimental rural imagery and contemplation of modern urban disconnection, is 'My heart's in the Highlands' - which itself is a 1789 song and poem by Robert Burns.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

Listen to Highlands by Bob Dylan here:


Bob Dylan also owns property in the Highlands of Scotland. 

As a co-investment with his brother David Zimmerman, Bob Dylan was reported in 2007 as having bought Aultmore House estate near Nethybridge, Inverness-shire, in the foothills of the Cairngorms. 

The house was built at the turn of the 20th century for the millionaire owner of a department store in Moscow and has been described as one of the finest homes in the Highlands.

And here is the home's website to explore:
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Bob Dylan Revisited

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The Two Bards - William Shakespeare and Bob Dylan

Looking forward to Andrew Muir's new book. His article was excellent too.

Article 'Two Bards':

I came across the above quote, with its intriguing time reversal of the usual ‘Dylan is the Shakespeare of his time’, on the Globe theatre website, as I was writing this article. I wish I had been the interviewer, I would have had explored the almost self-contradictory point of ‘people don’t write like that anymore.’ Perhaps he meant only one person does, ‘no-one other than Dylan…’; or, perhaps more likely, he meant that they ‘were like the Dylan of their day’ but not because of the “language that they used” as no-one, not even Dylan, writes in that style anymore. Dylan does not see this as a terrible loss, however. As he put it:

…of course nobody writes like Shakespeare either, but you know, it doesn’t matter those things can still be performed. They don’t have to be written – just like folksongs.”
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