How Bob Dylan Created a Musical & Literary World All His Own: Four Video Essays

More than two decades ago, New York­er music crit­ic Alex Ross pub­lished a piece on Bob Dylan in what many would then have con­sid­ered his “late” peri­od. “In the ver­bal jun­gle of rock crit­i­cism, Dylan is sel­dom talked about in musi­cal terms,” Ross writes. “His work is ana­lyzed instead as poet­ry, pun­dit­ry, or mys­ti­fi­ca­tion.” Despite hav­ing long pos­sessed exalt­ed cul­tur­al sta­tus, and been sub­ject to the atten­dant inten­si­ty of scruti­ny and exe­ge­sis that comes along with it, “Dylan him­self declines the high­brow treat­ment — though you get the sense that he wouldn’t mind pick­ing up a Nobel Prize.” As it hap­pened, he picked one up sev­en­teen years lat­er, in a clear insti­tu­tion­al affir­ma­tion of his work’s being, indeed, lit­er­a­ture. But what (as many have asked about the work itself) does that mean?

In the video essay at the top of the post, Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, exam­ines Dylan’s lit­er­ary pow­ers through the micro­cosm of one song. “All Along the Watch­tow­er” first appeared on the aus­tere 1967 album John Wes­ley Hard­ing, a seem­ing repu­di­a­tion of both the increas­ing­ly psy­che­del­ic pop-cul­tur­al zeit­geist and his own per­sona as a prophet­ic folk singer-turned-rock­er. “Dylan spent much of his ear­ly career fight­ing off the label of prophet,” says Puschak, “but here he seems to accept the role, lay­ing down an appre­hen­sive, apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nario, as if to say, ‘You want a prophe­cy? Okay, I’ll give you a prophe­cy, but it comes at a price: the price is mys­tery and entrap­ment, a prophe­cy the mean­ing of which is for­ev­er out of reach.”

A short folk bal­lad, “All Along the Watch­tow­er” is told “as a con­ver­sa­tion that aims to con­vey a mes­sage. But the fin­ger­prints of the blues are every­where on this song: name­ly, of one of Dylan’s heroes, Robert John­son, who, the leg­end has it, sold his sold to the Dev­il for musi­cal genius.” In addi­tion to deal­ing with longer musi­cal tra­di­tions, the song also finds Dylan employ­ing time­less arche­types like the jok­er and the thief, draw­ing as well from the Bible (to which John Wes­ley Hard­ing con­tains some 70 ref­er­ences) as he tells their sto­ry. These sound like the qual­i­ties of a lit­er­ary enter­prise, but as PBS Idea Chan­nel host Mike Rugnetta argues in the video above, “When we label some­thing lit­er­a­ture, we’re not mak­ing a sim­ple fac­tu­al state­ment about the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a work of art. We’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing about what we con­sid­er worth­while.”

In con­sid­er­ing whether Dylan’s work is “real­ly lit­er­a­ture,” Rugnetta cites lit­er­ary the­o­rist Ter­ry Eagle­ton’s essay “What Is Lit­er­a­ture?” In it Eagle­ton writes that “lit­er­a­ture trans­forms and inten­si­fies ordi­nary lan­guage, devi­ates sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly from every­day speech” — but also that “one can think of lit­er­a­ture less as some inher­ent qual­i­ty or set of qual­i­ties dis­played by cer­tain kinds of writ­ing, all the way from Beowulf to Vir­ginia Woolf, than as a num­ber of ways in which peo­ple relate them­selves to writ­ing.” Par­tic­i­pat­ed in by crit­ics, aca­d­e­mics, and ama­teurs, the ever-grow­ing indus­try of “Dylanol­o­gy” attests to a par­tic­u­lar­ly inti­mate and long-last­ing rela­tion­ship between Dylan’s music and its lis­ten­ers. The adjec­tive lit­er­ary, here, seems to imply the exis­tence of ambi­tion, com­plex­i­ty, ambi­gu­i­ty, and extend­ed cul­tur­al cen­tral­i­ty. 

Noth­ing evi­dences cul­tur­al cen­tral­i­ty like par­o­dy, and as the Poly­phon­ic video above shows, Dylan has inspired more than a few astute send-ups over the decades. “With so much con­ver­sa­tion around him and such a dis­tinct style,” says its nar­ra­tor, “it’s per­haps unsur­pris­ing that he’s been a fre­quent tar­get of satire.” That includes songs by oth­er famous and well-regard­ed musi­cians. In “A Sim­ple Desul­to­ry Philip­pic (or How I Was Robert McNa­ma­ra’d into Sub­mis­sion),” Paul Simon “mocks Dylan’s lyri­cal habits and pro­cliv­i­ty for ref­er­enc­ing his­tor­i­cal and fic­tion­al fig­ures in his music.” In addi­tion to its “nasal folk-rock style,” Steal­ers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Mid­dle with You” uses “the arche­typ­al fig­ures of the clown and the jok­er,” much like “All Along the Watch­tow­er.” (To say noth­ing of Weird Al’s palin­dromic “Bob.”)

Like many a lit­er­ary mas­ter, Dylan has dished it out as well as tak­en it. But his best-known acts of mock­ery seem to have been direct­ed not toward his peers but the press, whose rav­en­ous­ness in the 20th cen­tu­ry of ever-more-mass media did so much to both build him up and cramp his style. “In his ear­ly days, Dylan used the media as a tool for self-myth­mak­ing,” says Poly­phon­ic’s nar­ra­tor in the video above. But “soon enough, be became the icon for a grow­ing coun­ter­cul­ture,” and the title of “voice of a gen­er­a­tion” began to weigh heav­i­ly. Throw­ing it off required get­ting adver­sar­i­al, not least through songs like “Bal­lad of a Thin Man,”j’ac­cuse against an unspec­i­fied “Mr. Jones,” rep­re­sen­ta­tive — so it’s been pro­posed — of the legions of bad­ger­ing squares sent by news­pa­pers, tele­vi­sion, and so on.

Dylan could also have intend­ed Mr. Jones to stand more broad­ly for “peo­ple out of touch with him and his move­ment, peo­ple who pestered him for his beliefs with­out tru­ly under­stand­ing where they came from,” mem­bers of “old soci­ety, try­ing to pass blan­ket moral­is­tic judg­ments on his cul­ture and lifestyle.” Like a char­ac­ter out of F. Scott Fitzger­ald, “inau­then­tic on all lev­els,” Mr. Jones is “fak­ing his way through intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles while fetishiz­ing the coun­ter­cul­ture.” 57 years after “Bal­lad of a Thin Man,” the now-octo­ge­nar­i­an Dylan con­tin­ues to record and per­form, and to engage with the media when and how he sees fit. He’s some­how avoid­ed join­ing the estab­lish­ment, let alone becom­ing a Mr. Jones; he remains the jok­er who, asked in a 1960s press con­fer­ence whether he con­sid­ered him­self a song­writer or a poet, replied, “Oh, I con­sid­er myself more of a song and dance man.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Tan­gled Up in Blue”: Deci­pher­ing a Bob Dylan Mas­ter­piece

Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Mod­ernist Poem The Waste Land

Hear Bob Dylan’s New­ly Released Nobel Lec­ture: A Med­i­ta­tion on Music, Lit­er­a­ture & Lyrics

Clas­sic Songs by Bob Dylan Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall” & More

Bob Dylan’s Famous Tele­vised Press Con­fer­ence After He Went Elec­tric (1965)

A 94-Year-Old Eng­lish Teacher and Her For­mer Stu­dents Reunite in Their Old Class­room & Debate the Mer­its of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Kurt Von­negut on Bob Dylan: He “Is the Worst Poet Alive”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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