CHRISTOPHER ROLLASON, REVIEW OF POLYVOCAL BOB DYLAN: MUSIC, PERFORMANCE, LITERATURE (EDS NDUKA OTIONO AND JOSH TOSH)

 

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Otiono, Nduka and Josh Tosh, editors. Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. vii + 212 pp. $109.99

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent scholar, Luxembourg

There are now two periods in Dylan studies, pre- and post-Nobel, and this new edited collection inscribes itself from the start as a product of the 2016 Nobel watershed. It also reflects the curious circumstance that, while the Swedish Academy's award was the final act of the gradual, decades-long process of conferral of literary respectability on the Dylan œuvre, that same award has also, perhaps paradoxically, generated a passionate defense in some quarters of the primacy of performance over text in Dylan's work. Examples may be found in Andrew Muir's recent book-length study of Dylan and Shakespeare, and among the contributions to the 2019 international Dylan conference in Tulsa. The present volume may be considered as aligned primarily with this tendency. Regarding the prioritizing of performance (and thus of song over text), one might wish here to recall the words of France's prestigious poet—as namechecked by Dylan on Blood on the Tracks—Paul Verlaine: "De la musique avant toute chose . . . et tout le reste est littérature" ("Music above all . . . and all the rest is literature"). From such a perspective, (performed) music comes first and literature second.

The collective volume is the work of eleven contributors (eight male and three female) from the academic milieu, including the two editors, based variously in Canada (both editors, including Nigerian-born creative writer and academic Nduka Otiono), the United States (eight) and Germany (one). The component texts consist of an introduction co-signed by the editors and eight chapters, one of them (chapter 8) co-authored. The book spans a wide range of perspectives, for the most part anchored in Dylan's performance orientation, while not neglecting close lyric analysis and with reference back to the Nobel a recurring trope. The title not only points to the multiplicity of Dylan's selves but also, by signaling in the term “polyvocal” his many voices, anticipates the book's alignment with performance, of which voice is so vital a part.

The introduction (chapter 1), co-signed by the editors, argues that despite the Swedish Academy's "justifying of [Dylan's work] as readable text," "awarding Dylan the Nobel in literature is not the same as awarding it to Yeats or Eliot" (1). This is not to undermine the award as such, but to avow that Dylan's presence on the Nobel roster forces a redefinition of "literature," since "we cannot simply 'read' the vast bulk of Dylan's work": the musical and performance dimension is always there. Dylan's Nobel, the editors suggest, has provoked in the literary world "a sense of unease that is readily comparable to the unease sparked by the rise of the novel at the close of the eighteenth century" (4). They conclude that his œuvre "is literary only insofar as it is musical" and "readable only insofar as it must also be heard" (5), stressing the multiplicity of Dylan's voices and underpinning the notion of a "polyvocal Dylan" with the key concept of polyphony, deriving from literary theory via the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. The chapters that follow, they affirm, "develop our understanding of Dylan and place his textual and performative art within a larger context of cultural and literary studies" (11).

Chapter 2, by Damian A. Carpenter, is entitled "Restless Epitaphs: Revenance and Dramatic Tension in Bob Dylan's Early Narratives," and it lays its main emphasis on Dylan's ambivalent relationship with certain of his poetic predecessors (T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost), regarding not so much their actual poems as their concept of literature (Eliot's "historical sense," Frost's “sound of sense"). Carpenter sees Dylan as a "poetic songwriter," one who combines criteria of both poetry and song and creates a new paradigm from their fusion: "he would need to not simply imitate the traditional structure [of poetry or song] but also reorder it, speak to his present" (37). The author follows up his theoretical considerations with a close lyric analysis of "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "North Country Blues," which succeeds in illuminating and expounding the sense of two somewhat undervalued early-Dylan triumphs.

Chapter 3, by Charles O. Hartman, confronts the (non-academic) reader with a title that may appear a shade forbidding—"Dylan's Deixis." The author defines the linguistic term as an aspect of language whereby certain words (notably pronouns) "take on referential meaning within the context of a situation shared by speaker and listener" (55), resulting in not always predictable shifts in meaning. Armed with this theoretical apparatus, Hartman invokes songs such as "I Want You" or "Mama, You've Been on My Mind," or, as he puts it, "most famously," "Tangled Up in Blue" and Dylan's "vacillations" around that song's lyric, in order to point up the shifting, unstable nature of words as apparently basic as "I," "you" or "he" in Dylan's writing (57). A highlight of the chapter is a closely argued interrogation of the pronominal complexities in that great neglected song, "Up to Me" (58): all in all, the initial conceptual difficulty of this chapter is compensated for by the quality of the lyric analyses.

 

In Chapter 4, "Not Just Literature: Exploring the Performative Dimensions of Bob Dylan's Work," Keith Nainby, implicitly pursuing a Verlainean "music above all" line, takes up the cudgels for the prioritizing of performance, writing: "for Dylan, songs are living, and only ever fully present in the moment of expression" (80). He affirms that in Dylan's work, "poetry depends not merely on the words themselves but on how they are engaged through his performing artistry as a vocalist" (68), and stresses Dylan's status as "performer of his own compositions" (69). He effectively treats Dylan's studio recordings themselves as performances; thus, Nainby notes how in the Blood on the Tracks version of "Idiot Wind" a deliberately "poor" articulation reflects and reinforces the despairing sentiments of the stanzas' end-words (75), and explicates how in "Most of the Time" Dylan's "weak voicing of the halting promise to 'endure' even as the sound of the word itself cannot" (79). For Nainby, Dylan's vocals exhibit "the paradox of articulation—its capacity to both join and confound" (78).

Astrid Franke's Chapter 5, entitled "The Complexities of Freedom and Dylan's Notion of the Listener," reads the polyvocal in Dylan as an expression of "individual freedom" and "self-determination" (88), and of—using Raymond Williams' term—a "structure of feeling" in the form of an "impetus to start anew" (91). She further finds a tension in Dylan's songwriting between individuality and the urge, present in many of his love songs, to achieve the "merging of one's personality with that of another being," stressing here the initiatic role of the addressed female "you" as indicated by the titles in such songs as "Precious Angel," "Covenant Woman"  or "Oh, Sister" (92). Regarding performance, the author argues that by radically reinterpreting his classics on stage, "Dylan attempts to free the songs themselves of their past and thus urges his old fans (and also his critics) to discover the songs anew, freeing them, too, of their listening habits" (93). She concludes that "to have [someone like Dylan] around so long" in an activity of constant reinvention is "a gift to [our] culture" (97).

Katherine Weiss, in her chapter 6, "'Blowin' in the Wind': Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and the Question of American Identity," offers the volume's first more specialized case study, tracing the interaction between Bob Dylan and the celebrated dramatist and film scriptwriter Sam Shepard. The author traces out the Dylan/Shepard story through three main sources: Shepard's participation in the Rolling Thunder Revue; their songwriting collaboration, in the shape of the outstanding co-written song "Brownsville Girl"; and Shepard's one-act play of 1987, True Dylan. Weiss identifies as a common thread Shepard's pursuit of Dylan's masks, a search stretched out over time and by its nature never-ending. If Shepard argues that "Dylan has invented himself," Weiss adds that the former repeatedly "comes back to the philosophical question of who Dylan is" (103). She considers that for both artists "identity is a performative act" (105) and that both "reflect upon the fluidity of American identity and the need for and destabilization of the myths that help to form what it means to be American" (102).

Chapter 7, John McCombe's "Bob Dylan's 'Westerns': Border Crossings and the Flight from 'the Domestic'," reads as less concerned with performance than with identity, pushing that issue into the area of genre. Starting out from certain tropes of the celebrated (mostly cinematic) "Western" genre, the author identifies in Dylan's work, on the one hand, notions of the rebel outlaw hero and, on the other, the converse temptation of domesticity. Scoured for these themes are both the Dylan film canon (his participation in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and such "Western"-themed songs as "John Wesley Harding," "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," or "Isis"—the latter being considered as "Western" despite its "pyramids embedded in ice," that image being seen as a proxy for the hills of Wyoming (134-135). The author contends that "Dylan's westerns regularly conform to, and occasionally subvert, gender-based binaries that distinguish the classical Hollywood western" (122).

Chapter 8, co-written by Emily O. Wittman and Paul R. Wright, is entitled "'I Don't Do Sketches from Memory': Bob Dylan and Autobiography" and, taking its cue from the line from "Highlands" quoted in the title, examines Dylan's attitude to life-writing, as reflected in the songs and in Chronicles, foregrounding what the authors call "a defiant interiority unmoored from temporality" (142). Like Chapter 7, this study explores Dylan's work more from the vantage point of identity than from that of performance. "Highlands" is analyzed, with the focus on the exchange with the Boston waitress who requests a sketch, as a song that embodies the "tension between the visual and the verbal arts" (144), potentially forming a bridge between Dylan's core activity as musician and his forays into visual art. Songs defined as autobiographical, including "My Back Pages" and "Idiot Wind" (the latter seen as "raging with the power of King Lear on the heath" (53)), are analyzed as exhibiting a contradiction between "self-presentation and self-obfuscation," while Chronicles is characterized as an exercise in autobiography that is "explicit (yet highly evasive)." In his memoir, Dylan is seen as rejecting the generic model derived from Saint Augustine's Confessions, grounded in "chronological coherence," instead following in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) reconstitutes the past "without . . . linear narrative, as a means to think through the present" (158). The authors affirm that Dylan's memoir has the impact of "rethinking and reworking the very genre of autobiography itself" (155)—and that "his songs are autobiographical, but you will be thwarted if you try to figure him out" (166). Once again, it is a many-faced Dylan that emerges from this chapter's analysis.

The ninth and last chapter, by co-editor Nduka Otiono, strikes a visibly different note from its predecessors, and some will certainly find it the most immediately readable. Entitled "Beyond Genre: Lyrics, Literature and the Influence of Bob Dylan's Transgressive Creative Imagination," it charts the history of Dylan's influence in Nigeria, thus forming a valuable addition to a sub-corpus of Dylanology (reception studies) whose enrichment is always desirable insofar as it helps correct the conscious or unconscious U.S.-centric slant that characterizes the majority of Dylan studies. Otiono starts out from the Nobel and the general issue it raises of Dylan's literariness, moving on to the very specific "case study" of his reception in the Nigerian literary world. He shows how his music "cast a spell" on a group of Nigerian writers, including Otiono himself—and this despite the fact that "Bob Dylan has never played a concert" in any African country; Nduka Otiono was nonetheless entranced by the image of "African trees" in "Man in the Long Black Coat" (174). He compares Dylan's appeal to that of Fela Kuti, the "Afrobeat King" and doyen of Nigerian music (179, 181), and recalls how, for himself and his creative group in Lagos, Dylan was, to quote his fellow writer Afam Akeh, "one of our significant presiding spirits" (184), and, in Otiono's own words, "a quintessential example of the composite artist who straddles our polyvocal creative aspirations" (187). Dylan's multiplicity is thus received with open arms by artists in and from a culture far from similar to his own.

Many are those whose work has posed the no-doubt unanswerable question: "Who is Bob Dylan?" This volume may be seen as an accumulation of partial answers to that question, predicated on the awareness that there can never be one single or definitive take on the matter. Its multiplicity of perspectives is given a certain unity by the recurring themes of identity, performance, and the Nobel. The emphasis on performance over text is clear throughout, whether implicitly or explicitly, and at one point studio recording too is subsumed into performance. The various lyric analyses, while often dense and detailed, tend to emphasize the "how" of the songs rather than the "what." Such an approach is evidently laudable and necessary insofar as it corresponds to a vital set of facets of Dylan's work, recalling also that his creative oeuvre is not confined to songwriting and that he is an artist practicing in diverse other media.

The text-orientated tradition, however, has been a key aspect of Dylan studies ever since the first edition of Michael Gray's Song and Dance Man hit the bookshops in 1972, and has borne fruit over the years in essential analyses by Greil Marcus, Aidan Day, Christopher Ricks, Stephen Scobie, Richard Thomas and more. The last word has not been said—and never will be said—on any number of superb lyrics from the Dylan canon, and it is to be hoped that the post-Nobel reality will also stimulate new and fascinating analyses of Dylan's lyrics on the page, coming from the other side of the ongoing performance/text divide. 

The editors welcome feedback at editors@dylanreview.org