I’ve interviewed Decoding Dylan author Jim Curtis (part 1 here) (part 2 here). Check out the interview if you want to hear perspectives on popular music, Bob Dylan, and about music history. It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever conducted in the history of this blog and I’ve learnt a lot from it.
I received his book, Decoding Dylan, in PR and I’ve given it a read and I’ll be writing a review on it and sharing with you 10 important things I learned about Bob Dylan’s songs.
The book opens with a poem about Bob Dylan and his songs by the author called “Songs for Passersby”. Here’s a quote that really stuck out to me:
“Society’s ills, such as they are, were hardly changed on Dylan’s guitar. Bullies still clamour to build the big guns. We may always have these men – the masters of war. What then was truly changed on Dylan’s guitar?”
It really made me think about Dylan’s music and even with its positive messages of social justice, that alone can’t change society. Protests songs won’t end wars because the people in power will send poor people to fight in a war. The stanza after answers that question, saying that songs sung in bars were influenced by Dylan.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section is called “Theories and Practices”. The three chapters in this section help you understand his life, his upbringing up until 1964, what brought him to New York, and comparisons between Dylan and other artists and authors – Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso.
The second section is called “Songs and Songwriting” and that is the meat of the book; where the songs are decoded. The chapters look at songs of transcendence; songs of assimilation, rhyme forms; parallels between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen; and comparisons between Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen and what they did in the 60s.
The goal of the book is, in the author’s words, “to help the reader understand the often puzzling, confusing songs that Bob Dylan wrote during the 1960s.” The approach taken is a contextualised analysis where he makes connections between different ideas and images from other works that influenced his songs. In particular, Curtis adopts the procedures of cryptographers who decode coded messages. This is not a biography, it’s a book that helps you understand his music better.
It’s a very academic book that gives an insight to Dylan and his songs that other books that focus on his life don’t. It’s a refreshing approach and if you’re really into Bob Dylan’s music, you should definitely read it. It’s not a super long read. The book is very clearly organised and focuses on the essential songs.
I love seeing the different connections and similarities between different celebrities and this bridge builder approach that Jim Curtis takes is perfect for how I like to learn about different musicians. Throughout reading the book, I would be googling about the different subjects talked about in it. I wouldn’t call myself a die hard fan, but this book definitely made me appreciate his genius even more than I did before. While reading it, I even felt like I could relate to Bob Dylan more.
10 Things I learnt about Bob Dylan
To finish off this review, here are 10 things I learnt about Bob Dylan.
1. He’s more like a poet than a rock star
Rock and roll is very public, unlike poetry and painting. It’s meant to be played loudly, performed live, danced to. Because he was so reclusive and die-hard fans, being die-hard fans, wanted to get a piece of him, they’d do crazy things like go through his rubbish bins and follow him all the way to Woodstock.
He didn’t appear in public with his first wife Sara and he didn’t really have a squad, a group of friends. If we’re talking about mature Bob Dylan, he didn’t accept his Nobel Prize in the typical way, going to a ceremony where he’d give a speech, he accepted it at a private ceremony in a secret location. He’s a reclusive person, more like a poet than a rock star.
He did reveal something key, he went to one of Buddy Holly’s last concerts in 1959, on the infamous Winter Dance Party Tour. He claims that Buddy Holly looked directly at him and made a connection – a passing of the torch so to speak. There’s also that similar connection with Woody Guthrie.
2. He’s an outsider
Like a lot of famous people, he was born in the wrong place. Hibbing, Minnesota is a long way from New York City. The town he grew up in wasn’t an ideal place to be a creative because there’s so few opportunities. A quote from the book:
“Like many other creative people, young Bobby Zimmerman could have used ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place,’ the title of a 1965 hit song by Eric Burdon and the Animals, as his theme song.”
You see this similar element in the life stories of Leonardo da Vinci (moved from Vinci to Florence) and William Shakespeare (moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to London). There are advantages to growing up outside of where you’re “supposed to be”. You have to define your goal and what you want in life, you’re motivated to get out and you build up energy, and you have your eye on the prize.
He was also an outsider in the folk scene, which was historically and socially White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with names like Woody Guthrie (his son, Arlo, is half Jewish – his mother was Marjorie Greenblatt), Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger.
3. The 20th Century is the Jewish Century?
Historian Yuri Slezkine called the 20th century The Jewish Century because of the rise of many famous Jewish names in so many fields from science to literature to visual art to movies to music. However, the 20th century wasn’t a great time to be Jewish, particularly in Europe in the 30s and 40s. Jews are a very small group, at less than 15 million worldwide (0.2% of the world population). The historical peak Jewish population was 17 million in 1939. The Holocaust was in the 40s and the Jewish population still hasn’t recovered.
Bob Dylan is a fan of artists like Ben Shahn, Mark Rothko, and Marc Chagall – all famous Jewish painters in New York. Of course, Jewish artists weren’t his only influences. He loved Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer’s The Odyssey.
Jews helped shape American popular culture from Al Jolson to Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
I can offer a bit of perspective on this, being an ex-Jew. Some people argue that there are no ex-Jews, if you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish, but anyway I identify as an atheist. I certainly don’t think of myself as any expert or genius, I’m just some random 25 year old writing about classic rock.
I didn’t think that being Jewish had the most impact on my life of any identity I am, but now that I think of it, there was some impact and some values taught to me from a young age: be studious, work hard, persevere, don’t spend your money stupidly. Do these things and you’ll be successful in life. Education is valued in Jewish culture. So is reading and art. Reading is wha helps you learn about the world. You may not have the money to travel, but you can be taken anywhere with a book. In my family, even if you didn’t go to university, you read a lot of books.
4. His career was all about “transcending the limitations”
Bob Dylan transcended the limitations of both folk and rock and roll. Once he arrived in New York, it took him nine months to get his career to take off. When he was signed to Columbia Records, and Billy James asked him who he sounds like, he answered just like Elvis did when he showed up to Sun Studios, “nobody”.
There really is nobody like Bob Dylan – he’s one of a kind. He’s a shapeshifter. He synthesised completely different cultural traditions to make his sound. He also was a mediator between European high culture and American popular culture.
In chapter two of Decoding Dylan, Jim Curtis writes:
“The point here is that folk music in the 1960s had virtually nothing to do with rock and roll. The audiences for these two styles remained quite distinct. As a result, in folk music, the concept of the standard still existed.
Folk songs were, in principle, songs that everybody could sing in hootenannies and thus lent themselves to performance by different singers, different instruments, and so forth. Like seeds in the springtime, folk songs could propagate rapidly.”
That’s what happened to Bob Dylan’s songs. Rock musicians covered him: Jimi Hendrix with “All Along the Watchtower”, The Byrds with “Mr Tambourine Man”, Manfred Mann with “The Mighty Quinn”, Guns n Roses with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, Mitch Ryder with “Like a Rolling Stone”, Them “With It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, and many more.
Because of McCarthyism in the 50s and the persecution of communists, folk music wasn’t mainstream or played on the radio. It took two and a half years for Bob Dylan to be considered the folk musician. His first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and the performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was important in this. After this point, he achieved financial stability.
At the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, he angered the folkies in the crowd when he performed “Chimes of Freedom”, which anticipated his electric period and synthesised different sounds. When he played concerts in England, the audiences were outraged. Expecting pleasant, predictable music, they instead got raw, dissonant music. The fans felt alienated.
5. Protest and Civil Rights songs have two moods: compassion and anger
Bob Dylan is well-known for his civil rights activism. He was at the March on Washington with Joan Baez. Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, and Marian Anderson were there too. Bob Dylan felt uncomfortable being a white performer at a civil rights protest where the crowd weren’t singing along. He didn’t perform at many other politicised events after that.
Compassion is what activists feel towards those being oppressed and the anger is what activists feel towards the oppressors (often the government, but also corporations). Jim Curtis classifies most of Bob Dylan’s songs as being compassion, and only two as true anger songs: “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”.
6. “Desolation Row” is Dylan’s only major song with an imaginary place name in the title
What is Desolation Row and where is it? The name might come from the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. Desolation Row is an orderly place, think of it like the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. It’s a place of refuge that represents life and fertility, as explained in chapter 4 of Decoding Dylan.
The song is an intimidating one at 11 minutes and 21 seconds long and it alludes to a lot of classic literature and theatre. Might be interesting to talk about in an English class. It’s as long or even longer than a lot of progressive rock songs, and like prog rock, there’s an elitist quality to it. Makes me think of this joke: ‘How do you spell pretentious?’ ELP.
7. Bob Dylan was unconventional in that he released 3 totally different consecutive albums
Blonde on Blonde (1966) was an intimidating album with long and challenging masterpieces, John Wesley Harding (1967) contrasted from the previous one because the songs were short with parables and allegories, and Nashville Skyline (1969) was more accessible and grounded – a departure from his big city Greenwich Village sound to a Heartland yeehaw sound. It was such a fast evolution and these albums seem a bit disjointed.
Curtis said, “If John Wesley Harding is one long prayer, the album Nashville Skyline is one long seduction.” He said that “Lay Lady Lay” is one of the first Bob Dylan songs the average person can name and it was a big success, reaching #8 in the US.
8. “Subterrenean Homesick Blues” features what is surely the longest stanza form in the history of American song
Stanzas one and four have 18 lines! To keep the structure, he utilises couplets, tercets, and an internal rhyme. One of the stanzas has six lines that rhyme:
“Walk on your tip toes
Don’t tie no bows
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plainclothes
You don’t need a weather man
to know which way the wind blows“
For me, this was one of the first Bob Dylan songs that got my attention. Back when I was in the Tumblr classic rock fandom, gifs from the music video for that song grabbed my attention. Way before MTV, D.A. Pennebaker directed one of the first music videos ever. Originally it was the opening segment for Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Back, which documented Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. The music video was shot in an alley near the Savoy Hotel in London. I love how Bob Dylan looks so nonchalant here.
There are a few intentional misspellings and puns on the cards. Such a simple, but impactful and iconic music video with one shot. Some of the best music videos in my opinion are the simplest ones.
If I had to give a modern day equivalent to this one, I’d pick Ok Go’s “Here It Goes Again” – just one shot of the band dancing on treadmills. Those two videos are some of my favourites ever. Flexing with a high budget is overrated. Keep your limos, bling bling, and stacks of Benjamins, I’ll take a creative simple video.
9. Bruce Springsteen is to Bob Dylan as Frank Sinatra was to Bing Crosby
The similarities here are that both Springsteen and Sinatra were working-class men from New Jersey who were growing up when their inspirations were at the height of their popularity. They both started off heavily inspired, emulating them, but with time, they bloomed and became superstars in their own right.
In one concert, Bob Dylan introduced Bruce Springsteen as “Mr Bruce Springsteen”, something that he doesn’t do for any other musician, even equals like Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, or Paul McCartney.
In Curtis’ book Rock Eras, he talks about how popular music can be divided in segments of five years within decades. Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough “Born to Run” came out a decade after Dylan’s breakthrough “Like a Rolling Stone”. From the same album as “Born to Run” was the epic “Jungleland” – a bigger sound than any Bob Dylan song, but to compare, the intimidating 11 minute long “Desolation Row” was on the same album as “Like a Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited).
Bruce Springsteen was an outsider like Bob Dylan, but a different kind of one. The chapter on Bruce Springsteen talks about “New Jersey Syndrome”, a feeling of inferiority compared to New York City because of the centre-margin relationship. Reminds me of how some people I knew when I was living in Canada were wannabe Americans and sat around wishing they were American. I notice this in Ireland, where I live now, we have a term for those who wish they were English and think that Ireland isn’t as good as the UK, West Brits (I’ll admit I am one).
10. What do Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen have in common?
You might not think they have anything in common on the surface because of what they did: folk music, acting/pop music, and comedy. They were all Jewish and started in the same place right around the same time: Greenwich Village in the 1960s.
What makes their success special is that Jews were a pretty recent immigrant group to the US and many Jewish Americans in the 60s were either children or grandchildren of immigrants. At this point, there’s still a lot of connection to the old country. In the late 19th century and early 20th century there was a huge wave of immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe because of persecution. My family were part of this wave.
An interesting difference between Bob Dylan and Streisand and Allen is while they were all raised in observant Jewish families, Bob Dylan hid his Jewish identity a bit while Streisand and Allen embraced it and used it to their advantage in their crafts: be it making jokes about being Jewish or playing Jewish characters in movies – it was a big part of their personas.
As for similarities: Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand started singing in Greenwich Village clubs and got discovered quickly. By the age of 20, they both signed to the same label, Columbia Records. Woody Allen and Bob Dylan utilise a lot of intertextuality in their work and it requires a lot of knowledge of references. Dylan and Streisand’s most important films took place in the past, but Allen also made a few period pieces.
Dylan is a paradox and that is his appeal. That’s what fascinates people and gets them listening to his songs repeatedly. He’s a charismatic introvert who mixes high and popular culture and doesn’t want to be pigeonholed and is always innovating, changing, and doing something different. That is what diversity is all about.
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