Some Notes on the Art and Artfulness of Bob Dylan

This short article is not laying any claim to be anything definitive, rather it is presented as a light discussion piece, making a few comments and observations about Bob Dylan and his work, drawing some parallels between him and some artists and poets of the past, as a sort of tribute to him as he turns 80. [An earlier version of this article appeared on The Flaneur website around 15 years ago]. 

First off, the sheer range of Dylan’s work is reminiscent of that of Byron, major pioneer that poetry can do anything. Following on from Wordsworth’s challenge to 18th century restrictions on ‘poetic’ subject matter and diction, Byron (being Byron) took it all much further. For him there were no limits. His range was total: lyrical ballads and love poems (e.g. She walks in Beauty), ferocious political satire (Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill), high adventure (The Corsair), Gothic (the curse in The Giaour), the tragic (Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage) and bawdy comedy (Beppo). Much the same can be said of Dylan. Before him, popular music restricted itself to the narrowest range – love, loss, and more love. Dylan showed it could do anything – even everything.

And Byron’s default mode was comedy. Even when posturing as the doomed hero in Childe Harolde, his letters reveal a racy, lively, witty connoisseur of life. In his mature work, comedy provides the framework in which everything else is explored – Don Juan is his masterpiece. Again, so with Dylan. As soon as he relaxes among friends – with The Band at Big Pink (1967), with the Travelling Wilburies (1988), the playfulness emerges. From sheer nonsense to penetrating insights, Dylan is most fully at home in the comic mode, and always has been, ever since his Chaplinesque performances in the Greenwich Village bars in the early sixties.

It is Dylan’s humour that most commonly leads commentators to connect him with the legacy of Surrealism, but the links are stronger and deeper. Putting to one side the superficial view of ‘Surrealist’ as a homonym for ‘zany’, and focusing on its fascination for articulating Desire, its pursuit of the marvellous (Pete Hamill noting Dylan offering us a ‘shot at wonder’), its insistence that we engage creatively with its work, its potential for radical shifts in consciousness, the echoing of Surrealism in Dylan’s work becomes more obvious. 

And, like the Surrealists, Dylan has always questioned the stability of identity. In keeping with Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’, and Breton’s ‘Who am I? … perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt”’, Dylan has always delighted in a fugitive identity, telling Al Weberman ‘You are Bob Dylan,’ playing ‘Alias’ in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, playing one of the title roles in Renaldo and Clara while Ronnie Hawks played ‘Dylan’, being Masked and Anonymous.

Of the post-World War Two offshoots from Surrealism, Dylan has flirted with several: the political radicalism (admittedly more via Woody Guthrie in the early 60s, but he was echoing the Situationists more a couple of years later); the liberation of the mind (exemplified by, among others, the Beats, to whom Dylan is linked by virtue of his close relationship with Ginsberg); and the Absurdist (there is a distinctly Oulipian flavour to Mike Marqusee’s observation that Dylan creates traps for himself from which he continually has to escape). 

Dylan’s longevity as a creative artist invites comparison with Picasso, becoming central in his artistic field early on and sustaining that position, providing endless stimulation to those of his time and after. By the early 2000s Dylan was being awarded the epithet ‘old master’ by some writers (and was of course recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). 

The parallel goes further. A large part of Picasso’s significance was his role as a conduit, drawing on the whole history of western art, and incorporating non western artefacts, and fusing them into a new vocabulary of art for 20th century Modernism. Wise enough never to entirely abandon the human form, thus avoiding the aridity of pure abstraction, Picasso hobnobbed with Surrealism and became an inexhaustible well of new artistic possibilities, providing new inspiration to others over decades. Again, the parallel with Dylan is striking. Musically he has been the conduit through which blues, English and Celtic folk, country, Tin Pan Alley, rock and pop have been fused and reinvented. Poetically he has drawn on everything from ballads to the Bible, Donne to Rimbaud, creating a vocabulary and a vernacular for contemporary musical lyrics.  

Dylan’s work has a theatrical texture to it, and this theatricality raises parallels with Brecht, and also suggests answers to some of the conundrums in Dylan’s work: particularly, What happened to the early radicalism? Why can’t he sing? Why does he tour so much? Why doesn’t he put a stop to the bootlegging of his work?

Like Brecht, Dylan’s radicalism does not lie in the content of his work. He tried direct political protest music in the early 60s (ironically inspired, in his own view, by Brecht & Weill’s Pirate Jenny from Threepenny Opera), but abandoned it, leading to charges that he had ‘sold out’, but a better case can be made that he came to realise, as Brecht had done in the 1920s, that agitprop was merely cathartic, emotionally purging and ultimately comforting. Radical messages do not radicalise audiences. So he went beyond protest songs. He continued to use the ballad form, a form designed to tell stories, but the stories Dylan tells are elliptical and fragmentary, full of divergent voices, lacunae and unresolved possibilities. This creates a kind of verfremdungseffekt – Brechtian ‘alienation’, or better, ‘making strange’ (compare the Russian Formalist ostrananie, and of course Surrealism). The audience is faced with a choice, either to let Dylan’s music go past like a train you don’t want to catch, or to engage with it, filling in the gaps, trying to resolve the possibilities, creating alongside him.

Dylan’s presentation of his songs is consistent with this. He is often accused of being unable to sing. In fact he can sing (or could, his voice does seem to be packing up now), but usually doesn’t. This isn’t as odd as it sounds. Saying Dylan can’t sing is like saying Picasso couldn’t paint. Picasso could have painted straight portraits and landscapes, but didn’t, because he was doing something else. So is Dylan. The presentation of his songs is raw, and deliberately so. The polished music of such as The Beatles and Queen, like a fully prepared meal, can only be consumed. You listen to it, dance to it, but you don’t work on it. With Dylan the rough edges are still there, there is un-mined potential there. It is not a perfect dish already prepared, it requires work. Sometimes all you get are some of the ingredients and part of a recipe. You are invited to bring your own experience to complete it. You may decide you can’t be bothered, throw it out and open a can. Many do. But if you do bring your own ingredients, knowledge, experience and skills to it, the results can be much richer and more nourishing than anything ready-made.

And if you do contribute to the creating, whose creation is it? Dylan’s work is massively covered by other artists – moreso than almost anyone else. This is in large part because of the elliptical nature of his songs and the rawness of their delivery. Those who want to attend at all have to engage, working on the songs and letting them work on you. And as that happens, in a sense they are no longer really Dylan’s songs. They become yours as much as anyone’s. They take on a life of their own. Few Beatles’ or Queen songs lend themselves to being covered by other artists (unless as orchestral arrangements or gimmicks); what is the point of covering them? The original artists have done the definitive versions. There is nothing more to say. With Dylan songs there is always more to find and say.

Dylan’s cryptic games of mystery with the media are part of this. His fugitive identity undermines his possession of his work. He lets the songs fly away. His relentless touring is part of it too, presenting the songs in multiple ways, and, despite what he says, actually managing to do little effective to prevent them being bootlegged. So umpteen versions of each song exist, there is no definitive version of any of them, which encourages others to adopt them, adapt them, explore them further, personalise them (a good example being To Make You Feel my Love which has now become ‘Adele’s song’). Again, Dylan liberates the songs from being his property (literally so now he has sold his back-catalogue…). 

As one of the most bootlegged and covered artistes of them all, Dylan’s influence is incalculable. His work becomes part of everybody’s life. Even those who don’t ‘get’ him, of haven’t even heard of him, are touched by him, hearing his songs done by others and not even knowing they were Dylan songs.

Finally, there is the Shakespeare connection. Edward Docx sees Dylan’s rambunctious worldly experience mirrored in Shakespeare (as Leonard Cohen’s sense of the sacred is mirrored in John Donne), and Shakespeare’s perceptiveness of human nature and the ways of this profane world makes his work eternally contemporary. With their multiple voices and minimal stage directions, each production of Shakespeare requires creative decisions by the director and actors, and engagement from the audience, and the plays remain alive – in contrast for example with Shaw’s plays, which are so controlled by Shaw’s laborious instructions that they suffocate. For all his pompous pronouncements about ‘Shavian’ theatre, Shaw’s work is almost fossilised, stifled by his own urge to control. Shakespeare lives on.  

Brecht works like Shakespeare here. And so does Dylan. They all reject the totalitarian urge to tell us what to feel (Pete Hamill again). Their work just is, and invites us to engage. 

In 200 years, people will still listen to the Beatles, but it will be like listening to Bach or Vivaldi. Immortal in a sense, but of its time. Dylan, I suspect, will survive more like Shakespeare – eternally now, universal, insightful, knowing, wily, amused, angry, loving, compassionate, cruel, but above all continually inviting people to engage and explore. 

In the first half of the 20th century, great cultural figures were (as in the 18th century) ‘as common as gooseberries’: think Einstein, Picasso, Freud, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Proust, Tagore, the Surrealists, Trotsky, Brecht, Sartre and de Beauvoir (etc. etc.). You can make up your own minds who has made their name as a truly great figure since 1950. Lucien Freud perhaps? Borges? Beckett? I’m not sure there are so many others. Dylan gets my vote. 

Ulysses S. Arts-Council-Grant

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