THE DYLANISTA

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The back page of the British journal TLS (The Times Literary Supplement) featured, until very recently, a column by J.C. Over the years this column included some paragraphs reflecting on Writers More or Less Forgotten—writers who, J.C. reminds his readers with a determinedly light touch, are to be distinguished from writers “unjustly overlooked.”[1] A fine point, but one worth keeping in mind. Granted, the categories are porous, subjective, but this was their secret strength. They encouraged simultaneous expansion and delimitation, allowing J.C.’s periodic review of the canon to shine a torch into the dim library stacks of the literary past and drag many half-forgotten authors into the light.

Can we apply similar categories to Dylan’s work? Would gratifying rediscoveries emerge if we adapted J.C.’s categories, substituting the word “Songs” for “Writers”? I think they might. Maybe in dribbles, maybe in droves, Songs More or Less Forgotten and Songs Unjustly Overlooked might teeter into the light. I have a few candidates for these categories—who doesn’t? But, still, I should offer a (perhaps unnecessary) disclaimer: my nominations depend entirely on where, in the moment, I think the obscurity begins. Long ago, in the liner notes to Freewheelin’, Nat Hentoff quoted Dylan on “Blowin’ in the Wind:” “The first way to answer these questions in the song is by asking them. But lots of people have to first find the wind.” Let me borrow that thought: to determine which songs, More or Less Forgotten, should emerge from the darkness into the light, first you have to find the darkness.

But even before doing that—before separating the light from our highly subjective darknesses—it’s advisable to make a slightly different distinction between Songs More or Less Forgotten and Songs Best Forgotten. Most longtime listeners have managed to compile lists of these songs—lists that read like FBI dossiers of crimes against the canon. Predictably, no two lists match, and, perhaps fortunately, there could never be perfect agreement on which songs are Best Forgotten (although the mid-‘80s output seems to get the majority vote). The Dylan literature is chock-a-block with heated debates attacking and defending songs heard by one group as Dylan’s nadir and by another as close to his zenith. Where the former finds only detritus, the latter uncovers hidden gems. But, ironically, by the very nature of public debate, these Best Forgotten songs tend to be more prominent than many others—among the six-hundred-plus—that have simply flown for decades under the radar.

There are examples, too, of infamous performances, live or in the studio, that are Best Forgotten. And sometimes when the studio recordings and album cuts are Best Forgotten, subterranean favorites surface in live performances: e.g., the largely vilified studio outtake of “Abandoned Love” (Biograph) superseded by the live version, recorded at the Bitter End by an audience member (and available on YouTube), in which the voice, timing, and humor of Bob Dylan come through with authority.

Best Forgotten Songs and Performances Best Forgotten, in all their variants, stand apart from Songs More or Less Forgotten. Less distant, however, is the subcategory of neglected or overlooked songs that became part of the popular canon precisely because they were neglected or overlooked. In my view, three of the most renowned of these are the stunning “Percy’s Song,” an acoustic masterpiece that received heavy radio play over the years, the impossibly brilliant “Blind Willie McTell,” now canonized though originally excluded from Infidels, and “Up to Me,” an outtake from Blood on the Tracks. To take the last one, most critics highlight the excision of “Up to Me” as a spectacular blunder. Yet, ironically, the very notoriety of its outtake status has brought more attention to “Up to Me” than to many officially released songs. As with “Percy’s Song,” of course, and even more so “Blind Willie McTell,” this attention is deserved—these are simply better songs and better recorded performances than many included on the albums. But valorization notwithstanding, they still fall into the subcategory of songs canonized because they were neglected.

Songs More or Less Forgotten, then, shouldn’t enjoy the same visibility as Best Forgotten Compositions/Performances or Notoriously Neglected Songs. Instead, to be More or Less Forgotten, a song must break the surface of the waters of oblivion. This happens from time to time, accomplished not so much by a new old song on Dylan’s concert playlist (“Lenny Bruce,” anyone?) as by an enterprising artist covering a Dylan rarity. And in this subcategory, too, we all have our preferences. One of mine: Chris Smither, with his searing guitar and lean baritone, in a brave cover of “What Was It You Wanted?” (Up on the Lowdown)—brave, because the song is tailored for the virtuoso contempt of Dylan’s vocal. And brave, too, because only initiates would even know it was a Dylan song, let alone one from Oh Mercy (an album More or Less Unknown to the timid pilgrims who fear to tread into the Slough of Eighties Despond).

This welter of categories and subcategories makes me wonder: is there a hidden economy of song suppression? Might there be a secret ecology of neglect patterning songs More or Less Forgotten? Or is it just vogue? This last possibility reminds me of the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt, who, reflecting on a lover’s fickleness at Henry VIII’s court, speaks of “a strange fashion of forsaking.” No doubt, forsaking is part of the phenomenon, and it must be a fashion of forsaking foundationed deep for great songs to become More or Less Forgotten. But is it merely fashion? Music-company economics of A- and B-sided singles—back when such quaint things existed—might have contributed to the suppression of certain songs in the first flush of an album’s release. But Dylan singles almost never overshadow Dylan albums. Not even “Like a Rolling Stone,” a top-ten hit, could obscure “Desolation Row,” “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” On the contrary, like all the ‘60s albums (as well as Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Infidels) Highway 61 Revisited harbors no song More or Less Forgotten. And, remarkably, this kind of assimilation doesn’t stop way back when. The Time Out of Mind-“Love and Theft”-Modern Times trilogy (if it is a trilogy) reprises—almost but not quite—that same ‘60s comprehensiveness.[2]

All those albums are systemically present in the mind of any Dylanista. They are, as Roland Barthes says about language, “nothing but a human horizon which provides a distant setting of familiarity” (his italics). If we think of those comprehensively known albums as constituting a song-system, a horizon of familiarity, then songs More or Less Forgotten would have to pierce that horizon to change their status and to alter their effect on the song-system.

Allow me a digression to back this up. In his Cours de linguistique général, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure divided language into two distinct categories: the first he called langue, a kind of floating totality or system of conventions; the second he called parole, the real-time utterances by speakers. Langue, as Jonathan Culler explains, “is a system, an institution, a set of interpersonal rules and norms, while [parole] comprises the actual manifestations of the system in speech and writing.” And, bringing it all back home, Culler adds, “to learn English is not to memorize a set of utterances; it is to master a system of rules and norms which make it possible to . . . understand utterances. To know English is to have assimilated the system of language.”

Devoted, longtime Dylan followers have assimilated a kind of langue of early songs, almost like a system of linguistic conventions. New performances of those songs act as real-time utterances—parole—separate from the established Dylan songs. To have assimilated this institutional totality is to know the Dylan langue, as a native speaker would know English or Portuguese, Urdu or Igbo. No song from this langue could ever be More or Less Forgotten because memory isn’t really part of the process. To know Dylan in this way is equivalent to having assimilated the rules and norms of a language-system—or maybe a “song-system.”

Some songs never rise to the level of assimilation and are therefore never incorporated into the song-system, the Dylan langue. These songs are in the canon, of course, ready to be used by other artists, while proving to be convenient sources of annoyance for critics on the hunt for new talking points. And many of these songs are hiding in plain sight among the six-hundred-plus. Three personal candidates: “New Pony” (Street-Legal), “I’ll Remember You” (Empire Burlesque), and, very tentatively, “Cry a While” (from “Love and Theft”—an album replete with songs which were rapidly absorbed into the langue).

Sometimes pertinent songs fail to intersect the horizon, falling short of becoming part of the “distant setting of familiarity.” This happens even when an intersection would be timely, with practical ramifications. It seems to me there might have been a lot less handwringing about Dylan’s delay in accepting the Nobel Prize if “Day of the Locusts” (New Morning) had been assimilated into the song-system, accompanied by the autobiographical interpretation of the lyrics.[3] Like “Love and Theft,” New Morning has been almost fully absorbed into the langue. Only “Day of the Locusts” and “Three Angels” seem to have “more or less” slipped through the cracks.

But the cracks themselves, like the darkness I mentioned earlier, appear differently to every Dylanista. Even my list of categories is fungible (and, certainly, J.C. shouldn’t be held accountable for, nor is it likely he’d approve of, the taxonomical fragmentation I’ve wrought on the original Writers More or Less Forgotten). The few songs I’ve mentioned as More or Less Forgotten could be multiplied many times over, but any list I made, long or short, would still be subjective and patently unverifiable. Yet I suppose that’s the point of porous, subjective categories. While some people would strenuously object to my choice of songs, others might add to the list and cite songs they consider fully present in the song-system that seem to me to be outside the Dylan “institution.” And still others might altogether deny the existence of a langue-like capacity in Dylan studies. But these different reactions would confirm, rather than obviate, the phenomenon of Songs More or Less Forgotten, which makes me wonder if songs good and great will continue to languish More or Less Forgotten. And I wonder, too, if those songs, should they escape from the shadows, will successfully merge with the Dylan langue, breaching the horizon of familiarity. It’s hard to say. You can always bring them back, but can you bring them back all the way?

- RF

[1] For the last installment of Writers More or Less Forgotten (numbered Part VII), see September 4, 2020. [J]ames [C]ampbell stopped writing the NB column on September 18, 2020. The back page of the TLS is currently being written by M.C., but there’s been no hint that this new columnist will extend J.C.’s literary themes into the journal’s future issues.

[2] In a Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Lethem (9/7/2006), Dylan “disincluded” Time Out of Mind from a possible trilogy: “Time Out of Mind was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner. But by the time I made Love and Theft [sic], I was out of the corner. On this record, I ain’t nowhere, you can't find me anywhere, because I'm way gone from the corner . . . I would think more of Love and Theft [sic] as the beginning of a trilogy, if there's going to be a trilogy.” If “this record” is Modern Times, then the reconstructed trilogy would be “Love and Theft”-Modern Times-Together Through Life. And what about Tempest? An outlier? Who saw a trilogy in the first place? A critic? Now is the time for your tears.

[3] In 1970, Princeton University awarded Dylan a Doctorate in Music honoris causa. If “Day of the Locusts” is a response to that event, as critics suggest, then the apocalyptic indictment of the ceremony and the fictional speaker’s escape from the scene might have given a hint about Dylan’s feelings toward academic honors and the academically inclined Nobel committee. This attitude toward a prize is puzzling, certainly, since Dylan didn’t seem to have any hesitation in accepting the American Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor, or induction as an honorary member in the American Academy of Arts and Letters—not to mention countless music awards.

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