Folk Music: A Biography of Bob Dylan in Seven Songs and The Philosophy of Modern Song: A Review

Folk Music: A Biography of Bob Dylan in Seven Songs by Greil Marcus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 288 pp. Hardback. $27.50.

The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan. London: Simon & Schuster, 2022. 352 pp. Hardback. $22.50.


“I just tried to disguise myself the best I could.”

“I mean, I’m still the same person. You know, like Hank Williams would say, my hair’s still curly, my eyes are still blue. And that’s all I know.”

~ Bob Dylan, interview with Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, December 22, 2001

[Title][1]

The first Bob Dylan album I ever owned was Blood on the Tracks. It was a Christmas gift; I think I was 19. Though I had asked for the CD, I went in cold, no idea what was coming. Listening, I was puzzled: it was nothing like what the title had made me think it would be. I expected fire. What I heard was rain—buckets of it.

At this stage I knew nothing about its putative relation to Dylan’s “real life,” the musical pun in the title, or the possible connection of “Tangled Up in Blue” to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. And yet, for all that–for all my ignorance and misplaced expectations–the more time I spent with the album, the more it changed, and the more I changed with it. Over twenty years on, my opinion of Dylan is the same as Karl Barth’s opinion of John Calvin. He is

a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.

Blood on the Tracks was not the first Dylan I had heard. The first, I think, was probably Guns N’ Roses’ version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a cover I still love even more than that of the great Warren Zevon, whose rendition is almost a toned-down cover of GNR’s cover of Dylan, rather than of Dylan directly. It is fitting that my first introduction came through covers–through people impersonating Dylan–for that is a kind of photographic negative of Dylan’s own style, as he has taken on dozens of different personae over several decades, inhabiting one for a time before discarding it for something else. He’s always been mercurial, a shape-shifter, a trickster.

This is why Greil Marcus’s claim on the fifth page of his new book, Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Yale, 2022), that “[t]he engine of [Dylan’s] songs is empathy,” is such a terrible blunder.[2] Dylan is Proteus, but with the word “empathy” Marcus translates him into a psychiatry textbook, taking him from thespian to therapeutic. The term couldn’t be more wrong–not because Dylan’s songs are inhumane (they aren’t)–but because it confuses the way in which the humanity, the human sympathy, of the imaginative arts in general, and Dylan’s art in particular, works. This, I believe, is what Marcus really wants to talk about; his confusion on this point is a regrettable but perhaps unsurprising symptom of our disordered modern fixation on empathy as, apparently, the chief virtue.

In brief, “Bob Dylan” doesn’t exist. His name isn’t even real. “Robert Allen Zimmerman,” Dylan’s birth name, refers to a person, or at least it did—legally, “Robert Zimmerman” ceased to exist in August, 1962. “Bob Dylan” is a character, a pose, a cipher, an avatar, a set that is full of a hundred different and contradictory things, and simultaneously empty of them all. Not for nothing did Todd Haynes call his 2007 biopic I’m Not There, casting six different actors to play not even different versions of Dylan but different facets of his personality. Dylan’s songs aren’t instances of “empathy” any more than his character in the video for “Things Have Changed” is an instance of “empathy” for Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys.

Dylan has told us how to read him–as an unquiet man of many turnings, a Tennysonianized Ulysses–for a long time. He made it clear on “Queen Jane Approximately” (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965) that he knew what it meant to be “tired of yourself and all of your creations.” This was already true before 1965 (the previous year saw him giving his “Restless Farewell” on The Times They Are A-Changin’), and it has remained true ever since. You hear it in the wish for a “New Morning” (New Morning, 1970) and a “New Pony” (Street-Legal, 1978). Dylan has always been putting on his next costume before he’d cut the tags off of the previous one, has always been putting on a fresh coat of paint before the last one was dry.

He told us who he wasn’t in “Brownsville Girl” (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986): “There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice/I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound.” More recently, he told us in “Mississippi” (“Love and Theft,” 2001): “Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast/I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past.”

Most recently, he has told us again on Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). The man who “contain[s] multitudes” (“I Contain Multitudes”),who “[c]an’t remember when [he] was born and forgot when [he] died” (“False Prophet”) puts it pointedly in “My Own Version of You”:

All through the summers and into January 
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I want to bring someone to life–is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you

Dylan isn’t empathizing, he’s ventriloquizing. “I’ll bring someone to life–someone for real/Someone who feels the way that I feel.” He’s not your worried friend. He’s Pygmalion. Is it an accident that the non-live portion of Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait (that is, 20 of the 24 tracks) consists almost entirely of covers of songs by other people? No; no, it is not. The man made a movie called Masked and Anonymous. This is not a feature of his art that he is trying to hide.

Because this is so, a conventional biography of Dylan the artist may be beside the point, if not ultimately impossible (though Clinton Heylin’s tremendous 2021 The Double Life of Bob Dylan is very much worth reading). Indeed, Marcus, a student of Dylan for decades, seems largely to understand this. Thus his misguided emphasis on “empathy” sits uneasily with his better interpretation of Dylan, once even within the same sentence. After referring to empathy as “[t]he engine of his songs,” he immediately refers to Dylan’s “desire…to restage and re-enact the dramas others have played out” (5). Later: “[I]t may be that his true biography is his inhabiting of other lives, whether they’re musically inherited, like Handsome Molly, or coming to life in his own hands, the Frankenstein monsters, made of parts from different graves…” (211), before quickly reverting back to “empathy” (223, 228, 234).

Although not wholly realized, Marcus has enough of a sense of the “dramatic” nature of Dylan’s work to eschew a conventional biography, choosing instead to get at Dylan through the examination of seven songs.

The length of the chapters is frequently inversely proportional to the length of their respective songs. The longest chapter is on the shortest song, “Blowin in the Wind.” The two shortest chapters, almost identical in length, are on “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and the 11-minute “Desolation Row.” For me, it was those short chapters that packed the biggest punch, and the revelatory one on “Desolation Row” more than the rest. I will never hear the song the same again, for two reasons—one aesthetic and allusive, the other historical and substantive.

On the first: Marcus argues convincingly that Charlie McCoy’s lead part on acoustic guitar at the beginning of the track was inspired by the similar opening of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” itself a kind of desolation row. Second: the recollection of Robbins’s 1959 murder ballad is reinforced by the speculative but utterly convincing theory that Marcus floats about the song’s enigmatic opening lines:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging 
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town

Though there is no external evidence to prove it, once you’ve read Marcus connect it to the lynching of three black circus workers in Duluth, MN, where Dylan’s father and grandfather lived, in 1920–an event depicted on a postcard that was popular at the time–well, that puts the song in a whole new light. (Further support for Marcus’s theory, which he does not note, is the color the passports are painted.) It is anecdotes like this that make Marcus’s book a pleasure to read.

This is not to say it does not have some other faults besides the one I mentioned above. Marcus’s writing can be uneven. When he comes upon what he evidently regards as a Big Idea, he can bludgeon it to death. Consider: “All I could hear was a few minutes of the sort of aesthetic measuring and balancing necessary to write two people who would have otherwise been forgotten into history, and write a song that would itself become part of history, and make its own history” (100). This is followed by: “And we could hear the way the song was made to write its own history” (104); “The song was writing history, rewriting it, unwriting it” (105); “It was humbling to hear how songs not only mark history, or even make it” (117); “He wrote songs that as he put them out into the world wrapped their arms around history and then walked into it” (192). At least once, his adjectival straining becomes positively Germanic: in discussing “Murder Most Foul,” Marcus mentions Dylan’s “Sinatra-alone-at-the-bar-in-his-trench-coat-and-hat-while-the-party-swirls-around-him-on-the-cover-of-NoOneCares voice” on “Murder Most Foul” (229-30).

The penchant for profundity shows up in other ways, too. For example, there is a moment in the chapter on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” that includes a superficially erudite but confused and, finally, vacuous reverie on politics and the Good, lumping together Aristotle, the Enlightenment, civic virtue, and the search for one’s “true self,” and making it seem as if these were somehow magically combined in just the right way in, of all times, the 1960s. Indeed, Marcus seems, as far as I can make out, to think the 60s and 70s were a kind of Aristotelian apogee in America, at least aspirationally. This is of course self-evidently absurd, but further evidence that he really does believe it is provided by comparison to his ludicrous account of what followed, such as his description of Ronald Reagan as “for decades the tribune of a revanchist, brutalist right-wing vision of the world,” so that, by the 1980s, “even the existence of civic virtue…became impossible to talk about” (106). The level-headed reader finds himself constitutionally incapable of taking such pronouncements seriously.

One need not swear allegiance to Reaganomics to realize that Marcus’s hyperbole beggars belief, and so one wonders if the animus is simply generational. After all, Marcus loathes Dylan’s music of the 1980s as well (66-67; 192), even though much of it is quite good. He likewise scoffs at Dylan’s Christian albums despite his own secularized and immanent but nevertheless redemptive view of history, in which the dynamics of promise and fulfillment seem to be operative and it is a moral failing if the promise is deferred. Self-mythologization is a typical Boomer vice, and Marcus is afflicted with it in a way that Dylan (who is not a Boomer) is not.

Marcus, it is true, is a sympathetic listener of Dylan’s most recent albums. This is welcome, but unsurprising—such is de rigueur among critics. One only wishes that he had done something truly surprising and extended sympathy to the 80s material that he is much too quick to dismiss.

***

Folk Music tries to split the difference between music and life in the field of Dylanology, even if the balance happily tilts toward music. By contrast, Dylan’s own recent book, The Philosophy of Modern Song goes all the way (as he says in “I Contain Multitudes,” “I go right to the edge – I go right to the end”), where “life” disappears and the music is all that remains.[3] Given that I said above that I believe this to be the best way to think about Dylan, it will come as no shock for me to suggest this book gives us perhaps the best peek into our cipher to date. This is because the book isn’t about Dylan’s songs at all, and is even less about his life and times. Instead, it’s about the songs he loves, the ones he thinks and feels with. In that way, it is unparalleled in the light it sheds on Dylan as a creative sponge and on his music as a palimpsest.

The Philosophy of Modern Song is the first book that Dylan has published since Chronicles: Volume One in 2004. It collects 66 paraphrases and reflections on songs ranging from compositions by Stephen Foster in the mid-nineteenth century (“Nelly Was a Lady”) to Warren Zevon in 2003 (“Dirty Life and Times”). In between, Dylan runs the gamut, from country and rockabilly singers (Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Carl Perkins), to crooners (Perry Como, Domenico Modugno, Bing Crosby), to soul (Ray Charles, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, The Temptations), to rock and roll (Elvis Costello, The Who, The Clash).

Sixty-six songs—the same as the number of books in the Bible. A coincidence? Almost certainly not. As Dylan said in a 1997 interview with Jon Pareles, “Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.’”[4]

The Hank Williams song Dylan includes in his book is “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and his reflections follow the most common pattern. First, there is an imaginative paraphrase written in the second person. From these, you can see how Dylan inhabits songs as stage-plays before he steals and reforms them:

In this song you’re the swindler who sold me a faulty bill of goods….Your cheatin’ heart had unlimited power, was unreliable, corrupt, and treacherous—it was responsible for bringing poison and pestilence into the homes of millions, and you commended yourself for it, you celebrated yourself….Soon you’ll be on a cryin’ binge, wide awake and troubled, your consciousness filled with self-disgust….Soon you’ll be marching on the same side of the road as what I’m on, we’ll see how you handle that. (164)

Is it too much to hear a premonition after the fact of the singer’s posture in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”? Or a rejection of that posture in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Second, Dylan appends a short essay. In the one for “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” he comments on the way in which the song is an instance of aesthetic perfection and simplicity while also being anything but simple morally as it “make[s] you examine yourself—all your actions.” This discussion is a prelude to a large-scale indictment of the very different sledgehammer simplicity of contemporary popular culture:

That’s the problem with a lot of things these days. Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything. All songs are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery. Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.

And it’s not just songs—movies, television shows, even clothing and food, everything is niche marketed and overly fussed with. There isn’t an item on the menu that doesn’t have half a dozen adjectives in front of it, all chosen to hit you in your sociopolitical-humanitarian-snobby-foodie consumer spot. Enjoy your free-range, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reduction. Sometimes it’s just better to have a BLT and be done with it. (165)

By turns bookish, bawdy, and brash–one moment professorial, the next playful, and then pugnacious– Dylan wears his encyclopedic knowledge of American music lightly, idiosyncratically, and authoritatively. If you want to know how and why songs work as vehicles for stories, sensations, moods, and ideas, in a way that illuminates Dylan’s own music better than many analyses of that music, this is the book to read.

“In my beginning is my end,” Eliot says. So let us return to the crucial difference between “empathy” and the artistic indwelling of other selves and other lives. For this, I take three chapters in Dylan’s bible of song as programmatic.

It is noteworthy that the very first singer Dylan treats is named “Bob”: the country singer Bobby Bare and his 1963 song “Detroit City.” In the chorus, the speaker of the song, which takes the form of a confession of the difference between the life he really leads in Detroit (unhappy, empty) and the version he tells his family about (successful, worthwhile), laments, “I want to go home”; but one gets the impression that he won’t be able to. The track is an ancestor in the direct line of “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Dylan’s comment on the singer’s persona weaving a pseudobiography within the artifice of the song–“He’s able to manufacture a completely fictitious life just by penning some letters back home”–is a metonym for artistic creation outside the song (5). (And given that the first-person narrator of “Detroit City” works in the auto industry, Dylan’s pun on “manufacturing” is particularly clever: life is once again reframed as art.)

Second, there is another “Bobby,” Bobby Darin, one of the few singers to get more than one chapter in the book with both “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” Where “Bobby Bare” is the real name of Robert Joseph Bare Sr., “Bobby Darin” is the identity assumed by Walden Robert Cassotto. And what does Dylan have to say about him?

Bobby Darin could sound like anybody and sing any style. He was more flexible than anyone of his time. He could be Harry Belafonte. He could be Elvis. He could be Dion, he could be a calypso singer, he could be a bluegrass singer or a folk singer. He was a rhythm and blues singer. The guy was everybody if anybody. But here’s the thing about chameleons, if you don’t watch them changing colors they just look like an ordinary lizard. Their uniqueness lies in their transformative nature. So, more fairly, Bobby Darin was more than a chameleon, for each of his guises he inhabited with verve and gusto and even in repose he just about vibrated with talent. (87)

Substitute Dylan’s own name in the paragraph above, try it on for size. If there is a better description of him, I don’t know of it. And Dylan’s “own name?” That’s no more real than Darin’s. Everybody mentions Dylan Thomas as the source of Dylan’s nom d’art, but one has to wonder if Robert Allen Zimmerman, when he became Bob Dylan, was thinking of Warren Robert Cassotto becoming Bobby Darin. (It’s worth pointing out that before he was “Bob Dylan,” he was, for a time, “Bobby Dylan.”)

The third is Chapter 31, on Johnny Paycheck (most famous for “Take This Job and Shove It”), born Donald Eugene Lytle. Dylan writes:

There’s lots of reasons folks change their names. Some have new names thrust upon them as part of religious ceremonies, coming-of-age rituals or arrival into new lands where the unusual diphthongs or combinations of consonants coupled with hitherto unseen umlauts and tildes force ethnic names to be shortened into blander alternatives.

And then there are those who change their own names, either on the run from some unseen demon or heading toward something else. Donald Eugene Lytle knew he was born for more than his birth name had in store. And by the time he was a teenager, his hometown…could barely contain him. (147)

Again, substitute “Robert Allen Zimmerman” and see what happens. As Dylan said in a 2004 interview with Ed Bradley, “Some people—you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens.”[5]

Why belabor this point? What “Bob Dylan” means is the music and the words that fly under that banner, the music and the words that have been begged, borrowed, and stolen over decades (“Brownsville Girl” again: “Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now”), melted down together as ore in the bardic furnace, and turned into “a monument more lasting than bronze,” to quote the Roman poet Horace, by whomever, or whatever, that name signifies. As in the case of Homer, the name means the poetry. Say “Homer”, and you mean the Iliad and the Odyssey, not the man himself. So, too, “Bob Dylan” means the songs. Folk Music gets us part of the way there; The Philosophy of Modern Song dispenses with half measures. This was only to be expected. Dylan gave us the key on his most recent album, in “Mother of Muses.” Note the ambiguity of the first word:

Forge my identity from the inside out 
You know what I’m talking about

In the domain of the Muses, the art is the biography that counts. Outside of that domain, the watchword is found on Dylan’s “When He Returns”, from 1979’s Slow Train Coming: “Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask.”


E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of Christianity and classical civilization in late antiquity and early modernity. He is the editor and translator of Neils Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (CLP Academic, 2018).


  1. This one is for John Somerville.

  2. Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs by Greil Marcus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 288pp. Hardback. $27.50.

  3. The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan. London: Simon & Schuster, 2022. 352pp. Hardback. $22.50.

  4. Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews, ed. Jonathan Cott (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006), 396.

  5. The remark can be found online at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-bob-dylan-rare-interview-2004/.

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