The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan by Kevin Dettmar (editor)

Aspects of Robert Zimmerman's oeuvre are pieced apart by mainly Englit minded mavens -- Dylan is very well read, it's well known, but what about the music?

The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Length: 185 pages
Author: Kevin J.H Dettmar (editor)
Price: £14.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-05

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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.