Bob Dylan’s rowdy ways and American voice

Bob Dylan’s rowdy ways and American voice

By Timothy Hampton

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One of the great ironies surrounding Bob Dylan’s 2016 reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature is that, at the time of the prize, the great songwriter had just released a pair of recordings that featured no compositions of his own. Instead, he was busy reworking well-known pop standards by such composers as George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Dorothy Fields. Music historians often call these tunes “The Great American Songbook.” The phrase matters, since it prepares us for the achievement of Dylan’s latest work, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which offers an exploration of what it means to sing American music in the present, at a time of political chaos and moral collapse. Rough and Rowdy Ways is an exceptionally unified work, with an internal logic that unfolds as it goes. As is always the case with Dylan (or with any great artist, for that matter), we can best grasp his achievement by looking, not only at what the songs say, but at how they say it—at what they do. My aim here is not to “review” Dylan’s new work, but to present an account of what it’s like to listen to this material, and to reflect on how these songs work—and work together.

In recent years, Dylan’s public persona seems to have fallen into place. Whereas earlier in his career he changed looks every several years, his performances in the past decade or so have featured him with the same flat brimmed hat, moustache, and Hank Williams suit. Having silenced his critics through persistence and influence, Dylan now seems to understand that most of his listeners are actually on his side, and welcome what he has to say. So, the “ways” of the album title are at once events (my adventures), manners (ways of living), and directions for life (roadmaps for the future). Gone is the dark vision of much of Dylan’s turn-of-the-century work (Time Out of Mind (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001), and Modern Times (2006)), which placed us in an America ravaged by economic inequality, violence, and despair. The songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways are about working out approaches—to living, being, seeing. In this sense, it is a strangely optimistic and even spiritual record.

The sublime and the ridiculous come together in ways that Whitman, living in a pre-MacDonald’s world, could not have imagined.

Dylan starts with a song that takes its title from a famous line by the poet Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” The idea that the self is multiple is a long-standing Dylan preoccupation. His earliest songs often felt patched together out of other people’s language, as he wove together phrases copped from rural farmers with philosophical talk worthy of East Village graduate students. A bit later, Dylan recorded a set of songs by other people, but titled the 1970 album Self-Portrait, as if the self were multiple, a collection of melodies and phrases from elsewhere. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, he makes the idea of a capacious self a major theme. He opens Whitman up, applying his famous line to the dignities and indignities of everyday life. In a multi-cultural America, we are all diverse (the good news) and all fragmented and confused by advertising (less good). “I drive fast cars, I eat fast foods,” says Dylan, with tongue in cheek. The sublime and the ridiculous come together in ways that Whitman, living in a pre-MacDonald’s world, could not have imagined.

Thus, from the beginning, Dylan asks us to think about who we are, as individuals woven into a community. This same theme is approached from a different angle in the second song “False Prophet,” a blues about the power of creativity. The narrator is an impressive character—part con-man, part magician—who makes grand claims for himself, dismissing enemies and wooing beautiful women. But no matter how threatening or exaggerated his claims, the song traces out an ethical path (a “rowdy way”) through a world of thieves. Instead of condemning or preaching at the corrupt figures around him (“false-hearted judges,” “masters of war”), as a younger Dylan might have done, his hero here simply knocks them into line with his own power: “I’ll marry you to a ball and chain,” he says to one rival. Such is the power of the songwriter, who controls the story. 

A repeated motif on this record is the idea that metaphors have power when they are taken literally. This, in effect, is the magic of art in life—fictions that are enacted. Dylan plays with this notion to shocking effect. So, to read the title of a song like “My Own Version of You” we might expect a conventional tune about love and fantasy. There are many songs like this: “Got a lock of hair and a piece of bone/And made a walkin’, talkin’, honeycomb,” sang Jimmie Rodgers in 1957. “Venus, make her fair/A lovely girl with sunlight in her hair,” added Frankie Avalon in 1959. Yet here, as in “Multitudes,” the conceit is literalized. The narrator of the song explains that he plans to construct a human being, like Doctor Frankenstein. His design makes it possible for him to evoke both the wonders and dangers of our fallen life, while offering a reflection on the role of the artist as creator.

But the message of the songs cannot be considered apart from their form. These recordings feature a diction and approach to singing that contrasts with much of Dylan’s earlier work. He frequently uses short phrases that alternate with musical interludes. Thus, for example, “My Own Version of You,” ends with Dylan’s narrator releasing his new invention into the world, a world of “laughter…and tears.” I place an ellipsis between the laughter and the tears because the line is interrupted, as Dylan waits while his band plays a riff. These moments of hesitation or interruption are all over the record. Instrumental interludes punctuate the delivery of the lyrics, breaking up phrases or pairs of lines. Moreover, Dylan frequently draws on expressions that are often paired in conversational speech. So, when he says, “I’m first among equals,” the listener knows that he’s going to follow it with, “second to none.” He seems to be playing with our expectations. When he says, “I don’t care what I drink,” you know he’s going to follow it with “I don’t care what I eat.” These lyrics are composed of brief phrases, punctuated by pauses in which the musical accompaniment takes over: “I’ve looked at nothing here/or there/Looked at nothing near/…. (pause) or far.”  

This elliptical approach generates a game of tension and release. A phrase is begun and set of terms is hinted at. Then Dylan falls silent as the music plays, before he finishes the thought. In many cases this technique is built on rhyme effects. So, for example, in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” we hear: “For thine is the kingdom/The power and the glory/Go tell it on the mountain/Go tell the real story.” No one paying attention can fail to realize, long before we get there, that “glory” (followed by “Go tell it on the mountain,” for heaven’s sake) is going be rhymed with “story.” In other words, Dylan is telegraphing his rhymes, letting us know before we get to them how they will stack up. He’s not confounding us, as he might have done earlier in his career; who doesn’t remember lines like “he just smoked my eyelids/and punched my cigarette,” from 1966? Instead, he’s releasing the tension and bringing things to a temporary moment of closure through rhyme and diction.

These are songs about putting things together, about righting oneself, about making a world out of bits of found material, about containing multitudes.

This lyrical and performative approach generates an impression of openness. In many of the songs for which Dylan is most famous, the words pour out and over the listener with rapidity that is often surprising and exhilarating. Here, by contrast, he is playing with banal everyday expressions (“I just know what I know”; “It is what it is;” “Business is business”) which let his listeners into the space of the song. He sings a part of a rhyming couplet, then we wait, along with the singer, as the band plays a phrase, and we anticipate the obvious and prepared-for rhyme that will close the couplet. We know when we hear “glory” that “story” can’t be far behind; “stars” will certainly generate “guitars.” When we hear, “turn your back,” we wait for “look back.” We sense that “Got a mind to ramble” will be followed by “Got a mind to roam.” “Turn back the years.” How? “Do it with laughter” (wait for it) “Do it with tears.”

My point here is that the diction and delivery of the songs is of a piece with their thematic content. These are songs about putting things together, about righting oneself, about making a world out of bits of found material, about containing multitudes. The songs breathe as Dylan breathes, and as we breathe with him. “What are you looking at?” he sings at one point, “There’s nothing here to see/ just a cool breeze that’s encircling me.” The rhythms of breath that are the stuff of life (especially in pandemic times) are built into the very structure of the songs.

Yet what sets Dylan apart, here as in his other songwriting, is that he constantly raises questions about the responsibility of the artist—not as an ideologue or political sloganeer, but as a creator of tales and characters. And so, the collective dimension of our listening experience is worked out across the album. The work unfolds logically, moving from self to society, from individual breath to national spirit. We start with a self that contains multitudes, before moving to explore the power of art. And as we move toward the end, the poet asks for strength. He offers a lovely prayer, “Mother of Muses,” and a fantasy of redemption and repose, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” This last tune makes explicit what has been implicit so far. This is that what matters is voice, the voices of song, of memory, of imagination. The song celebrates the power of pirate radio stations (“Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest”), voices that circulate beyond conventional geography and turn the world into an echo chamber. Dylan turns to the idea of voice, of the voices that come through the air and from the past, in our collective experience as containers of “multitudes.” The great fabulist and maker of legends reflects on the process through which inspiration arrives and art comes into being.

These steps prepare us for the culmination of the record, the magnificent seventeen-minute dirge, “Murder Most Foul,” that reflects on the tragedy of American history. Here, we can see how the experience of listening that we have just been through has a larger, cultural and political, importance. The song is about the murder of JFK, carried out, we now learn, by a group of southerners eager to snuff out the idealism of the liberal president and his brothers (“We’ll get them too”). Thus, we move from personal identity, in the first song, to national crisis, in the last. “The soul of a nation been torn away,” sings Dylan, after Kennedy dies. And he evokes the confusion and drift of the generation that follows, as it gropes its way between hedonism (“It’s the Aquarian Age!”) and senseless violence (“Gonna go to Altamont and sit near the stage”).

The rest of the record has laid the poetic ground, the conceptual frame, for the final song. In the last tune, the hesitations and pauses heard elsewhere in the singer’s diction give way to long lines. The tale unspools like a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Dylan takes a deep breath decides to “tell the real story,” as he urges Jimmy Reed to do earlier on. His opening claim that he “contains multitudes” is translated into poetic technique, as his own narrative voice jumps around in the song; at times, he seems to speak with the voice of the dying president, at other times he ventriloquizes the killers, then he again he seems to speak as himself, reflecting on the meaning of what has happened.

We should not be surprised that “Murder Most Foul,” which takes its title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ultimate ghost story, tells a story of haunting. It evokes the ways in which the country is haunted by the death of Kennedy, by a foul murder that marked the beginning of the loss of direction and collective purpose that has led us to this moment. Dylan asks what has happened to Kennedy’s “soul” after his death: “For the past fifty years they been searchin’ for that,” he points out. And, midway through, he asks for more voices to speak. He calls forth the great DJ, Wolfman Jack, who broadcast in the 1960s from Mexico on XERB, one of the famous “Border Radio Stations,” (like the “pirate radio” mentioned earlier). It is Wolfman Jack—a fitting character for a ghost story—who can offer the music that can soothe the soul: “Wolfman, O Wolfman, O Wolfman howl/Rub a Dub Dub/It’s a Murder Most Foul.” And Dylan, speaking as/for Kennedy, begs the Wolfman to play a music—any music—that can soothe the soul, “Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz,” he urges, “Play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in F-sharp/Play ‘Key to the Highway’ for the king of the harp.” Dylan suggests that Kennedy’s spirit circulates in the music of the country, in a music that can console and heal, but that is also wounded and haunted, like the country itself.

Dylan’s art has always been about voice, in all senses of the word. This includes both his own scratchy vocal delivery and the voices he hears around him. Across his career he has mobilized an extraordinary array of references and idioms, from the poetry of Rimbaud, to the Bible, to the songs of Bing Crosby.

It is unclear to me whether the opening line of “Murder Most Foul”—“Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ‘63”—Is supposed to evoke Joni Mitchell’s 1971 ballad of generational disillusionment and friendly counsel: “The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68.” Either way, the resonance is meaningful for a history of American popular culture. Mitchell’s song closes her masterpiece Blue, just as Dylan’s song closes Rough and Rowdy Ways. Blue is certainly one of the most self-absorbed recordings ever made. It is all about “I.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, by contrast, takes us from an “I” that is already multiple to a parable of national tragedy. Confessional writing and friendly confidences appear small next to the capacious vision of “Murder Most Foul.”

Dylan’s art has always been about voice, in all senses of the word. This includes both his own scratchy vocal delivery and the voices he hears around him. Across his career he has mobilized an extraordinary array of references and idioms, from the poetry of Rimbaud, to the Bible, to the songs of Bing Crosby. He has taken to heart Whitman’s idea of an American voice that would be multiple, contradictory, diverse. His most recent work unfolds almost as a guidebook for how to think about voice and voices, about how song invents identity and questions its own creative power. His new songs move beyond the confines of the self, to reflect on a history in which JFK and Jimmy Reed, Tom Dooley and Harry Truman, all play a role. In the process, Dylan’s work reaffirms the capacity of song to renew spirit, to forge rough and rowdy ways through the dark moment that is ours. It carries radio waves and warm breezes, breath, soul.

Timothy Hampton is Professor of Comparative Literature and French at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe.