The question of authenticity has been a cloud over the life and career of Bob Dylan since his 1961 arrival in New York City. Who was this chubby-cheeked folk star with a Woody Guthrie fixation and a seemingly endless well of tall tales for the press about his origins? Dylan appropriates lyrics and melodies from old gospel and folk songs and makes them his own, creating a familiar but different form, a familiar but different sound.
From the folk purity of 1963’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, he traveled through rock star superpower, country music purity, and gospel righteousness. Through it all remained the brooding apocalyptic prophet of doom. If a hard rain was going to fall in 1963, we wonder if he imagined a downpour in 2020. After all, as he told us in 1965, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Timing and synchronicity have always been key to the singularity of Dylan’s work. His 39th studio album of original material, Rough and Rowdy Ways, released on Juneteenth 2020, has come to us in the middle of a global biological pandemic that still hasn’t loosened its grip on our lives. Those who have removed their masks too early are only revealing some disturbing faces, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways that much more urgent for those still aware of the dangers around us.
In late March, Dylan released “Murder Most Foul“, a nearly 17-minute epic rumination that uses the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as an elegy for everything that’s been lost in America since 22 November 1963. Dylan’s professional career was barely two years when Kennedy was murdered. All the promise felt by Dylan’s generation, embodied by Kennedy and the New Frontier, was instantly wiped out. It’s no wonder he spends the last half of the song asking to hear his heroes: Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz (among many).
“Murder Most Foul” is a devastatingly elegiac 10th and final track on an album whose mysteries have provided more than enough inspiration for the legions of Dylan’s followers and critics worldwide. There was no immediate news of an album after the release of this single. It was followed, in succession, by singles “False Prophet” and “I Contain Multitudes”. We wondered, was Dylan just going to be releasing songs every three weeks? It seemed possible, and perhaps preferable to the usual way of business. Where other music legends are going to Youtube to connect with their audiences during this period of isolation, periodically releasing performances from their homes, Dylan stays with what he’d always done.
It’s eight years since the release of Tempest, his last album of original material. He filled the decade with three gorgeous releases of Frank Sinatra cover songs: Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and Triplicate (2017).
It’s within this rich context that Rough and Rowdy Ways came into the world, following a flurry of nearly universal critical acclaim and a rare interview with The New York Times, in which he goes into detail about some of the songs, including “I Contain Multitudes”, with its allusions to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and reverence for the past.
It can be argued that Dylan is recording these slow, meditative songs as a farewell to the past and a longing for all that we had hoped for, but clearly can no longer be in the 21st century, but Dylan scholars have long known that their subject came onto the scene standing on the shoulders of all the literary and musical giants that paved his way. Most of his recordings have been created in the shadow of a higher force: Jesus, Little Richard, Allen Ginsberg, Sinatra. Everything is connected. Of “I Contain Multitudes”, Dylan notes: “…the last few verses came first…that’s where the song was going all along…you write it on instinct…in a trance state…they’re not metaphors.” (New York Times)
Channeling the past seems to be the key to understanding Dylan’s methodology. He’s a collagist. “I Contain Multitudes” is a quiet meditative song, but the tone and the ideas are troubling. If those last few verses indicate where the song is leading Dylan, the darkness is visceral: “I’m a man of contradictions / I’m a man of many moods…You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart / But not all of it, only the hateful part.”
Blues stomper “False Prophet” gained notoriety upon its initial release because its music was dangerously similar to the “B” side of a 1954 single by preacher and R&B artist Billy “The Kid” Emerson. This is a pattern with Dylan. Musical and lyrical appropriation is the modus operandi of folk and blues artists through most of the first half of the 20 th century. Plagiarism from one perspective is respectful homage form another. It’s a boastful song: “I’m first among equals / second to none / The last of the best / you can bury the rest.”
Through ten verses Dylan sings of conquests, accomplishments, and relationships. The storyteller is a dangerous character who can’t be trusted and can’t be denied. “Can’t remember when I was born / and I forgot when I died” he tells us at the end, a variation on a great line from 1965’s “It’s alright ma (I’m only bleeding)”. “Those not busy being born are busy dying.”
Dylan has always been a catalyst for change. How many of us have whiled away the hours trying to draw the connections between his influences, references, allusions, and musical inclinations? If Rough and Rowdy Ways is his valedictory statement to us, it’s certainly in keeping with his traditionalist spirit. Through all his manifestations, he has maintained traditionalism as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it does.
Take the album’s title, taken from country legend Jimmie Rogers (who is the only musician pictured in the CD artwork), and jump to “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, another stomper whose sound will remind listeners of Dylan’s 1981 classic “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”. It’s all connected. In “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, the hero is once again looking at a life spent in dark places doing risky things. Within that running theme (rough and rowdy) there still lies the heart of a song and dance man. Dylan will always be telling us about his views as an interpreter of songs (his or other people’s): “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand.”
Death surfaces in “Black Rider”. Dylan recognizes the role of this figure, to come in the dark of night and take his wife to the next world, but he won’t go down without a fight. He bargains with the Black Rider, asking him to “be reasonable…go home to your wife / stop visiting mine / One of these days / I’ll forget to be kind”. Later, in a way that can only be the irascible character Dylan is playing now, he warns the Black Rider that he has his limits: “Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm / I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.”
More blues stomping comes with “Crossing the Rubicon”, and it’s filled with lines that could speak to everything happening in our 2020 pandemic world:
“What are these dark days I see? / In this world so badly bent…You won’t find any happiness here / No happiness or joy…”
To cross that Rubicon is to make a final, fatal, irrevocable move from which there is no turning back. Caesar crossed the Rubicon River between Italy and Gaul to start the war against Pompey and the Roman Senate in 49 BC. Dylan has always operated with an uncanny understanding that history will fold in on itself, and the song is another page in his traditionalist handbook where all elements feed into each other.
It’s likely that “I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you” will be this album’s “Make You Feel my Love”. It’s tender, filled with longing, and could be a miracle ballad in the more sensitive interpreters, and those are too many to mention over the years. Here, the love is simple: “I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn / I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone.” It’s a song illustrated by shooting stars, snow white doves, and speaks of all the tender possibilities of desire finally fulfilled.
In “Mother of Muses” a love song to inspiration and creative blood brothers, Dylan draws connections between characters as disparate as George Patton, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King. It’s hard not to believe him when he tells us: “Man, I could tell their stories all day.”
It could be argued that the strangeness of “My Own Version of You” is too clever for its own good. Here, Dylan assumes the persona of a grave robber, collecting pieces of corpses to create his ideal mate. The storyteller wants “…the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando” to create a partner, a confidante.
In the end, when he tells us “I wanna bring someone to life, turn back the years / Do it with laughter and do it with tears” we can sense a strange sense of grace in this ode to conception without connection. The story is really, of course, an extended metaphor, a conversation between “Bob Dylan” the singer/songwriter and Robert Zimmerman, the boy he was for the first 20 years of his life. In “My Own Version of You”, Bob Dylan is reinventing himself yet again.
In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, Dylan sees this Florida resort community at the southern tip of the state as both the end of this world and the start of another one. The lyrics have a film noir mood reminiscent of Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay”, where connections are forged and misunderstandings made in a land where anything can happen. Key West is on the horizon line, the place where you can find your mind if it’s been lost. It’s also no coincidence that this ninth track begins with a mention of President McKinley’s death and the final track, “Murder Most Foul”, is an ode to the second president of the United States assassinated in the 20th century. Dylan knows how to connect the dots.
Dylan has perfectly simpatico musical accompaniment here with his touring band (Bob Britt and Charlie Sexton on guitar, Donnie Herron on steel guitar, violin, accordion, Matt Chamberlain on drums, and Tony Garnier on bass.) Dylan credits himself on vocals and guitar, but the brief evidence of harmonica on two of the livelier songs is uncredited. The same goes for production credit, which somehow seems sensible. Is he telling us these songs produced themselves? Fiona Apple, Blake Mills, Alan Pasqua, Tommy Rhodes and Benmont Tench are listed as “Additional musicians”, which might be everything from backing vocals to piano. The Dylan completist will be frustrated by lack of comprehensive credits, but in a stronger sense such mystery adds to its allure.