New tunes from a hatful of old songs

We approach Dylan’s both peerless and wildly uneven catalogue only through the after-image of his dazzling prime


This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, Greil Marcus (Yale University Press, £20)

“How many Bob Dylan studies must one man read before you call him a hopeless Dylan obsessive?” was not a line considered for inclusion in Dylan’s totemic “Blowin” in the Wind” of 1962. But as the latest volume dedicated to the great man hoves into view, the question is worth asking.

Folk Music is the latest rumination by Greil Marcus on the phenomenon born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941. In the very crowded field of chroniclers of the 1960s prodigy of American song, Marcus is the pre-eminent voice, his authority cemented by Invisible Republic (1997): a commentary on the Basement Tapes (1967–68, spruced up and released in 1975) and a significant event in the restoration of Dylan’s critical reputation, then at its lowest ebb. (In an unimprovable phrase, Marcus describes Dylan’s recorded output of the Eighties and Nineties as “a true parade of sludge”.)

For more than half a century, the writer has been teasing out the meanings to be gleaned from his subject’s art with an uncommon erudition, astuteness, whimsy and apparently inexhaustible enthusiasm. This does come at a cost: his revelation that he can never play “Murder Most Foul” (the closing track from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways and a panoramic, lugubrious and shallow 17-minute overview of the American century) “less than three times in a row” is to be grateful that someone else might do it so that we don’t have to.

We can relive the creation myth of his generation’s lodestar

Marcus devotes 70 pages to “Blowing in the Wind” (from Dylan’s sophomore effort The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a song Marcus is not entirely sure he likes) and just a little more than seven to the acknowledged masterpiece “Desolation Row” (from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965).

This is in part so that we can relive again the creation myth of his generation’s lodestar, when as a newcomer in New York’s Greenwich Village the young Dylan was playing “folk music, but it was really rock’n’roll” (Suzi Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend of the time), before reinventing many times over what it meant to be a songwriter in the ferment of the American imperium, displaying an exhilarating faithlessness toward his discarded musical selves in the velocity of his artistic growth.

Thereafter, to approach Dylan’s at once peerless and wildly uneven catalogue has been to do so through the bright after-image of the dazzling troubadour of his prime.

“Blowing in the Wind” also serves to launch the other key theme here: the murderous indecency of the United States toward its black citizens, seen through the prism of Dylan’s songs, nominally those seven Marcus affords chapter headings but typically ranging across the canon. The book’s sole photograph conflates the two strands: Dylan and the novelist James Baldwin at a Civil Rights dinner in 1963. Baldwin, in black-tie, has the basilisk stare suggestive of the pain that might be visited on a gay black man in postwar, conservative America; Dylan, meanwhile, has the allure of a sharecropper James Dean. (“Image was everything,” Rotolo has observed of her beau.)

If, as Marcus maintains, “no song exists outside of politics”, his instinct in Folk Music is to disdain Dylan’s overly didactic musical broadsides, valuing instead those songs where he imaginatively inhabits the dilemmas he sings of, such as in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964), about the 1963 murder of an African-American barmaid by an aristocratic white tobacco farmer “who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’, and which Marcus deems “an apotheosis of craft that Dylan had never quite found before and would never find again”.

Dylan onstage with Robbie Robertson in 1966

Despite acknowledging the shortcomings of the preachy “Blowing in the Wind”, Marcus can’t leave it alone. He sees the composition as close kin to the anti-slavery “No More Auction Block”, sung by African American Union soldiers during the Civil War, and a folk-movement staple that Dylan was singing around the time he wrote his own. Faults aside, the soon-to-be anthem seems to Marcus unanswerable in its identification with the hopes for social change and “a fantasy of freedom that will never come to pass” for all Americans, but most desperately for its black constituency.

Half a century after he first felt “a sense of change beginning to gather force” in the sound of the young Dylan, Marcus hears Dylan delivering its threnody in “Murder Most Foul” and mourns the different, better America that failed to come to pass. It is perhaps the reason why despite its banality, the song exerts such a grip on him, for as every Dylan devotee knows, “He not busy being born is busy dyin.”

In the era of Black Lives Matter, Marcus portrays a Dylan who throughout his long career has responded to the benighted state of US race relations with an instinctive empathy that electrifies his artistic creation, at times in covert ways. He brilliantly excavates from the opening lines of “Desolation Row” (“They’re selling postcards of the hanging … ”) echoes of a mass lynching that took place in Dylan’s hometown 20 years before his birth and just may have been witnessed by his father and grandfather.

In doing so, Marcus manages simultaneously to elevate the song’s lyrics above accusations of offhand surrealism whilst, in the accumulating litany of historical injustices, rather losing sight of the song as a whole.

At Hyde Park in 2019

Folk Music’s positioning of Dylan’s oeuvre at the heart of the race crisis once again gripping American society also serves, perhaps incidentally, to disguise the 81-year-old Bard of Duluth’s gradual, inevitable slipping from relevance. The man himself appears to have accepted this some time ago, with the antique-sounding titles taken from Shakespeare and Whitman (“Murder Most Foul”, “Tempest”, “I Contain Multitudes”); with his embrace of pre-rock’n’roll popular musical idioms (rather than solely the “folk music” of Marcus’s title); and with his engagement with the Great American Songbook.

Since 2015, Dylan has released three albums entirely composed of the kind of songwriting he and his peers strove to lay to rest in the 1960s. It must be said it’s a very particular take on the tradition. To hear his Phoenix Nights-like rendition of “Young at Heart”, the opening track on 2016’s Fallen Angels, is to think, “Wow, this guy must really hate Frank Sinatra” — and it doesn’t get any better elsewhere. How heartening, then, that Rough and Rowdy Ways (“Murder Most Foul” aside) should be by a country mile the best Dylan album since 2001’s Love and Theft.

“A biography is another kind of song,” Marcus reckons, and he has consistently found new tunes in his subject’s craft. If his conceits are sometimes fanciful (“Hattie Carroll” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” are “the same song”, apparently), if he can at times stretch the bounds of credibility (“two slowly reverberating [guitar] notes” are a “coded language” shared across 40 years by Blind Lemon Jefferson and erstwhile Dylan sideman Robbie Robertson), then that’s OK: we’re playing rock’n’roll here, not Bach. In Folk Music’s interpretative brilliance, boundless energy and moral rage, Marcus honours his source. The discursive Dylanologist par excellence, the freewheelin Greil Marcus.

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