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The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan

Kevin J.H Dettmar (editor)

(Cambridge University Press; US: May 2009)

"Analyze you, categorize you..."

In his introduction, the editor of this new companion, Kevin Dettmar, mentions the scholarly interest in Bob Dylan since his emergence as a pop and, indeed, counter-cultural figurehead in the ‘60s. The popularity of New Criticism—the literary theory devoted to analysing a text in and of itself, without reference to historical events, sociological data, or an underlying philosophic concept—is mentioned as a reason behind his work being scrutinised in English departments from that era on.


It’s an odd contradiction which the editor recognises—in a sense Dylan, a supposed counter-cultural figure, was being used as a device to reinforce a rather conservative attitude to literature—the self contained textual art object. By reading Dylan’s lyrics (and it’s always about the lyrics) without references to the outside world, you could become aware of a whole canon of specific and rare lit; rebellious sounding pop music could be allied to an old school, “tasteful” approach to reading.


This odd dichotomy between the supposed transgression of Dylan and his status as a beacon of the literary in pop is throughout this companion. The majority of essays, subdivided into parts “Perspectives” and “Landmark Albums”, are written by English lecturers, with a minority by rock critics (generally Englit educated) and a solitary sociologist. Simon Frith has written about the idea of rock authenticity as a combination of a Romantic idea and a folk one, its sentiment coming from a conception of the outsider genius artist and purveyor of music “of the people”.


In the first, lengthier part, the literary references and references to folk culture in Dylan’s music are emphasised. David Yaffe’s lead off essay proper “Dylan and the Anglo American Tradition” writes of the appropriation of old folk tunes like “Lord Randall” into “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” as well as Dylan’s recycling of both rock (Chuck Berry) and literary (Allen Ginsberg) riffs into his mid ‘60s music. T.S Eliot and Walt Whitman are also referenced as ancestors, reinforcing Dylan’s cultural cachet.


There are echoes of Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train” here in his analysis, as he places the man in the context of a succession of archetypes. “Early Dylan stole tunes, later Dylan stole words (21)” he claims elsewhere, a bold claim, but it certainly neatly formulates a phrase. Yet Yaffe also hits on the recurrence of Dylan as a touchstone in recent popular culture, from Kurt Cobain to A.J Soprano.


David R. Shumway looks at Dylan as a cultural icon, and describes him as an artist in the mold of Picasso or Ezra Pound – incontrovertibly a modernist, which would seem to confirm his iconic nature. Focusing on this well worn theme, he doesn’t consider the position of Dylan as an icon to be looked up to by successive musicians, or opposed by some more post-punk ones. Presumably a cultural icon must be a beacon of Culture.


A lot more interesting is Lee Marshall’s essay on “Bob Dylan and the Academy”. In it, he looks for the moving of Dylan studies away from being an English literature focused enterprise, and a less mystified analysis of the man’s work. He is, unsurprisingly, a sociologist. It’s a reflexive essay, aptly placed smack in the middle of the collection.


In the landmark albums section, opportunities were missed to tackle records from a less standardised “classic” point-of-view. The selection, apart from popular literary novelist Jonathan Lethem’s piece on Infidels , is one of complete canonicity. Why not focus on a marginalised Dylan album and analyse it in an oppositional sense to his oeuvre, or reassess it in some way?


Another Side Of Bob Dylan would be an interesting subject for study as it represents the conversion from a more politically minded, sincerity to an esoteric, self mocking and self consciously loose style – a distant cousin of contemporary anti folk. Even an album like Self Portrait could be an jump off point for looking at what went wrong.


As an aside, it doesn’t help when Jean Tamarin’s piece on Bringing It All Back Home, while being enthusiastic, reads less like an analysis of the album than a boring talk through, track by track. Quoting the lyrics to “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and then commenting that it is all about “the human play” is pretty banal, especially as it’s likely that the readership of the companion will have heard the song.


On the other hand, New School professor Robert Polito’s analysis of Highway 61 Revisited begins with an interesting account of the record’s liner note and how it hints at the themes therein. He also notes the mix of styles in the songwriting (“a medley of voices and styles, blues, rock & roll, hardboiled, Western, Beat and literary”), and doesn’t characterise the music as simply “primitive” as David Shumway does. Indeed, he tries to account for the influence of pop as opposed to folk and Rock culture on Dylan by hitting on the influence of circus owner P.T Barnum and comedians Abbot and Costello. Even his style of writing is more (pun intended) freewheeling. 


In a nice touch, Michael Coyle and Debra Rae Cohen talk about the impact of Nashville session musicians on Blonde On Blonde. Unfortunately, this acts as a prelude to close lyrical reading of the album. Yet does the sentence “both music and lyrics,  recontextualising each other through alternative lenses, serve as an anti-exegetical warning, even as the lyrics themselves depict one outcome of that exegesis: getting ‘stoned’” really capture a sense of what it’s like to listen to “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”? 


Absences which, if filled, could’ve definitely pushed this companion further are an analysis of Dylan as curator – the role of his musical taste in determining his music, and also making him an intriguing listen as a radio disc jockey as of late. The trajectory of his voice and the differing tones employed would’ve been a decent avenue to explore, as a progression in itself but also as means of legitimating unconventional singing styles in later rock and indie music culture - the “all my favourite singers couldn’t sing” ethos.


And following on from that, the place of Dylan as someone to be opposed to, primarily by post-punk musicians, as an icon of the ‘60s and a certain branded name of the rock establishment. Sonic Youth’s position would be instructive here – formed out of an artistically minded, year zero punk and new/no wave bent to currently occupying an iconic, branded role of their own in indie rock culture, going so far as to be the backing band for the covers soundtrack album of I’m Not There.


Still, it’s an interesting read for the academically inclined budding Dylanologist (not as wide ranging as the Rough Guide To Dylan of a few years back), even if it is lacking in a pop musicology sense. For the unconverted to Dylan though, there would be no point in picking this up – every essay is built upon the assumption that Dylan is worthy of extended proselytising. For this reviewer, a more questioning point of view would have been more interesting, rather than setting the foundation stones for a Canon of Western Rock, with Dylan as some kind of new Shakespeare.

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