I believe these things are true about Dylan, as they are true about any genius: 1. He is unstoppable. 2. “He” is both an individual and a medium, a process by which certain energies are released, and the “he”—the man, Bob Dylan—arranges and invents and occasionally exploits the forms in which these energies are released. 3. As fast as people imagine they are following his “career,” he is always ahead of them and therefore no longer interested in their opinions; not out of modesty, but because he has work to do. 4. If there had been no era of protest, no civil-rights involvement, no Vietnam War—still, there would be a Bob Dylan, because the energy he represents would have been channeled into another area.
Letter to the Editor, Esquire, August 1972, p. 14
Joyce Carol Oates
“Dylan at 60”
Originally published in Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, 2004
DYLAN! When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying. We—my young husband and I—were classical music lovers for whom the arrival each month of chastely spare, black-on-white Musical Heritage Society albums (does anyone now living remember these?) was an exciting event. Bob Dylan seemed to erupt out of nowhere. The genuine power, originality, and heartrending pathos of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” were like nothing we’d encountered before.
So long ago in 1962-63 before American history entered its demonic phase—before the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, before the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Before that pivotal turn in black-white relations in February 1964 when the new young black heavyweight champion Cassius Clay rebaptized himself Muhammad Ali. And before the escalation of the most despised and divisive war in our history. So long ago, it will seem to many now living as a kind of innocent prehistory, there was Bob Dylan.
Dylan, a Tambourine Man for that era, who would both help to define it and characterize it. And finally to influence it, in terms of American and British pop music, for the remainder of the century.
“Dylan” was a self-chosen name in homage to the great, legendarily self-destructive Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose lush, lyric, over-the-top poetry presumably influenced many of Bob Dylan’s songs. At the time it might have seemed an act of extraordinary chutzpah for a Jewish kid from Duluth, Minnesota, named Bob Zimmerman to anoint himself with the poet’s internationally famous name; now, forty years later, Dylan is an American classic whose fame far surpasses that of his namesake, who seems to have entered an eclipse. And even admirers of Dylan Thomas must concede that the brash American Dylan has taken on a far wider range of subjects, idioms, and aesthetic styles than the poet. If, as a poet per se, Dylan is not consistently original or inspired, as a musician-poet he’s sui generis.
In the history of American popular music, Dylan is generally credited with the transforming of the folk-revival movement from its reverent fixation upon traditional ballads to the creation of new, socially engaged, and politically provocative music. The composer/songwriter becomes the performer. And what a performer! (Consider the astonishment of the public if Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters were to have written their own original songs. And if Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, and Little Richard had aligned themselves with radical activist political causes.)
But hardly had Bob Dylan’s raspy voice and aggressive folk style imprinted itself upon the public when, in his brilliant album Bringing It All Back Home, he cultivated a more sophisticated musical idiom, synthesizing folk and rock in a way that would seem inevitable in retrospect; yet, at the time, struck folk music purists as disloyal. Dylan clearly anticipated the formal, aesthetic, and tonal limitations of folk music, even as, by way of LSD experimentation, he explored the myriad possibilities of bending music as one bends one’s mind, toward the surreal, the fantastic, the phantasmagoric.
When we think of the most charismatic of Dylan’s songs, we are likely to think of songs from the era 1964-1970. In this remarkably creative time Dylan wrote such diverse songs as “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Airight Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, “John Wesley Harding,” the tenderly lyric “Visions of Johanna,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and “Farewell Angelina.” Perhaps his most haunting song, as it’s his most mysterious, is the surreal “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (1965), with its air of a fairy tale in which the end of something (a love affair? a life?) is being reiterated in each refrain in the very face of “Strike another match, let’s start anew.” Like all good poetry, this song of Dylan’s can’t be paraphrased. Like all good music it is both of its time and timeless.
(My most anthologized short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, written around the time of “Baby Blue,”is dedicated to Bob Dylan. A one-sided admiration, clearly! The story was in fact suggested by a real-life incident involving a young teenaged girl and a “charismatic” serial killer in Tuscon, Arizona, and not by Dylan’s song. Yet the haunting melody of “Baby Blue” seemed to beautifully approximate the atmosphere of my story, as of that time. Eventually, I would regret the dedication: too many people have asked me, “Why?” Who knows why?)
Dylan has continued in his long, ambitious, ever-evolving public career, through permutations of the self that have left many of his original admirers behind, or unaffected. (Evangelical Christianity? Bob Dylan? Count me out.) My Princeton University students, including musicians, born in the 1980s, very much admire Dylan as a classic, extolling his work of the 1960s and 1970s. In a pop culture of rapid, vertiginous change, when audiences are more fickle and ephemeral than any in history, Bob Dylan yet retains his stature and something of his original mystery. He’s the exemplary Dionysus figure: “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, sing a song for me / I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.”
Most of us have places we are not only going to, but own and must maintain. Dylan’s music isn’t about us, any more than it’s about the sixty-year-old Dylan, but it may be the most purely American music for us.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.