The Dylan Review, volume 2.1

Now out is the third issue (Volume 2.1, summer 2020) of the Dylan Review, the open-access online journal launched in 2019 and dedicated to the academic study of Bob Dylan’s work, and of which I am an editorial board member. The new issue is available at:
https://www.dylanreview.org/vol-2-1-summer-2020
(for the earlier issues, see entries on this blog for 19 July 2019 and 10 January 2020).

I believe this new issue is of a very high standard. As is only fitting, several articles home in on Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways: Charles Hartman offers a review from a musicological perspective; Richard Thomas draws out in fascinating detail the album’s multiple references to the Greco-Roman classics; and Anne Margaret Daniel focuses on the album’s stellar track ‘Murder Most Foul’ and its legion of allusions. Another recent release, ‘Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 1967-1969’, merits an informed review by John and Tim Hunt. Graley Herren enters the long-standing debate on Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One and its status as autobiographical fact or fiction; and there is a revelatory interview with Mark Davidson, librarian of the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the future of Dylan studies in the archive and beyond.

The issue is available as a single .pdf, and the individual pieces can be accessed in both .pdf and webpage form. The quality of the various contributions shows that even with the Never-Ending Tour put on ice, Dylan studies are not only very much alive, but ever-expanding!

TANGLED UP IN QUOTES: INTERTEXTUALITY IN BOB DYLAN’S ‘ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS’

The Dylanite world, and the wider world beyond it too, have welcomed Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) with open arms: it has given him his ninth number one in the UK and surely never before in the internet age have so many superlatives and five-star reviews circulated for a new Dylan release. In the wake of such a flood of opinion, my aim in this piece will be not so much to evaluate or interpret this Dylan’s latest song offering, as to home in on a specific dimension of the album. This will be: the complex and multiple interrelations between a text (song, poem, book, film or whatever) and other, already existing texts in the world outside it – in other words the phenomenon which goes by the name of intertextuality. This is far from being Dylan’s only work where that dimension is strong, but this time round the new album is so (to coin a phrase) tangled up in quotes that there is a good case for considering it as the most intertextual of all his albums – and its stellar track, ‘Murder Most Foul’, as the most intertextual of all his songs.

 

The album’s title already places it under the sign of intertextuality: ‘My rough and rowdy ways’ is a song hailing from 1930 by Dylan folk-blues favourite Jimmie Rodgers. The opening track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, takes its title direct from Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem-sequence Song of Myself, while that of ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ suggests a (forgive the pun) key poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. References musical, literary, biblical and cinematic stud the album’s songs, incidentally providing further material in support of the recent affirmations of, respectively, Richard Thomas and Andrew Muir regarding the influence on Dylan of the Greco-Roman classics and of Shakespeare. For the classics, one need only point to the titles ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ and ‘Mother of Muses’ (highlighting Calliope, muse of epic poetry); and, for Shakespeare, to ‘the winter of our discontent’ from Richard III and the trademark phrase from Hamlet ‘to be or not to be’ (both in ‘My Own Version of You’), while the title of ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself comes from that same Shakespearean tragedy. Also reaffirmed is the already well-documented presence across Dylan’s work of Edgar Allan Poe, with his first-ever actual naming of the great Bostonian in a song text, in the line from ‘I Contain Multitudes’, ‘Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr Poe’.

**

Albeit the intertextual phenomenon is present right across the album, I will for the rest of this article concentrate on a single track, namely ‘Murder Most Foul’, for a number of reasons: first because I feel it is by far the best song on the album, second because it pushes Dylan’s intertextuality into unprecedented places, and third because it seems even officially to be set apart from the rest of the album. It was the first single (of three) to be released as an on-line trailer for the album, attracting massive interest as Dylan’s first new self-penned song since his Nobel (and indeed since 2012 and Tempest); the CD release places it in splendid isolation as sole track on the second disc; and the back flap of that same release features John F. Kennedy’s photo above the words in gothic script, Murder Most Foul. The song has the further distinction of being the longest-ever track to feature on a Dylan album (clocking in at 16:54 and dethroning ‘Highlands’ from 1997 and its score of 16:29), All this may justify a certain special treatment for this song.

As already widely noted, ‘Murder Most Foul’ falls into two distinct parts: a narrative of the Kennedy assassination, and a second part centred on the late DJ Wolfman Jack, consisting of what we may provisionally term a lengthy playlist replete with artist and song references. Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy before now, at least twice – in ‘I Shall Be Free’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he imagines ‘President Kennedy calling me up’ on the phone, and the box set ‘Trouble No More’ includes in its DVD a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. The Kennedy theme may also recall other Dylan songs which revisit US history (the Civil War in ‘Cross the Green Mountain’) or pay homage to the illustrious dead (John Lennon in ‘Roll on John’). For the song’s second part, however, while there is a forerunner in another medium, namely radio in Dylan’s fondly remembered show ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’, there is no precedent in the Dylan songbook.

The cultural references in this song are abundant to the point of plethora and have been keeping hardcore fans fascinatedly busy. Dylan’s naming and quoting takes in (mostly American) music, cinema, theatre, history, geography and more. The citations are almost all at the popular end of culture, though high culture is represented by Shakespeare (not only in the title as we have seen, but also in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth), and Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’ and has already referenced on this album in ‘I Contain Multitudes’). The cinema references include Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself – and, as we will see below, a number of film titles where one would not expect them.

It is music, though, that dominates the second part, thanks to the conceit of reanimating Wolfman Jack as Dylan’s personal DJ. The musical allusions, through song titles, artist names or direct quotes, embrace a whole multiplicity of genres in a gloriously disorganised journey through US (and occasionally UK) popular music: old-time (‘Marching Through Georgia’), jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James and her ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’), blues (Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and ‘St James Infirmary’, the song which Dylan drew on for ‘Blind Willie McTell’), rock’n’roll (‘Mystery Train’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, members of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Woody Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, the masters of suave cool Burt Bacharach and Hal David via their ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

In a few cases Dylan directly links song and artist (as with Etta James); in others he names the artist (Patsy Cline, Charlie Parker) but not any particular number. In the majority of instances, however, what we have is a vocal or instrumental composition with no artist name attached. It is here that we may suspect Dylan has sent out a challenge to his fans of the type: ‘pin an artist to this song’. A general element which I think is worth emphasising is the frequency with which a song turns out to have been recorded by one or other of the unchallenged greats of US popular music – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley – those figures who we mention in the same breath as Bob Dylan himself.

The musical intertextuality includes Dylan quoting himself. The Hoagy Carmichael composition ‘Memphis in June’ had already been referenced in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’, on Empire Burlesque; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes the Mississippi Sheiks’ ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; ‘rising sun’ recalls another cover, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on Dylan’s first album. Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan. The phrase ‘they killed him’ recalls Kris Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’, as covered by Dylan on ‘Knocked Out Loaded’, a precedent as a song about political assassination. Dylan even offers a self-quote of a quotation, having already used the title of Joe South’s song ‘Down in the Boondocks’ earlier in the album, in ‘Key West’). We may also note what must be the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive: the line ‘Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime’ begins evoking a country number by Bob Wills and goes on to recall what must surely be the heinous crime that was the Tulsa race massacres of 1921.

Various Dylanites have posted online lists of the song’s musical allusions. Indeed I have done so myself, with a haul running to almost 70, on this blog on 19 May 2020. The range and depth of Dylan’s musical knowledge come over as remarkable, but the self-references in particular are, notably, for the most part to cover versions. The one significant exception is a bold metatextual gesture  by which ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself is  cited verbatim in the closing verse: ‘Play “Murder Most Foul” (!)’, thus placing the whole song under the sign of a challenging circularity.

That circularity pertains to what we may call a certain ludic dimension in this song. Some on the internet share my own impression that ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ was never recorded by ‘the great Bud Powell’ (though it was by Ella Fitzgerald) – in which case Dylan would be asking the Wolfman’s ghost to play a non-existent track. Equally, on several occasions Dylan puckishly demands that the DJ ‘play’ a title – ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Merchants of Death’, ‘Lonely are the Brave’ – which research reveals not to be a song at all, but a film. Here we may recall Dylan’s description in his Chronicles of a library so inclusive it houses volumes such as ‘Sophocles’ book on the name and nature of the gods’, or The Athenian General by Thucydides, which do not exist. In ‘Murder Most Foul’, we may conclude, some of the time and despite the deep seriousness of the song’s main theme, Dylan is artfully playing tricks with his audience.

All this does not mark the first time that Bob Dylan has engaged extensively in song-within-song creation (we may recall how in ‘Sara’ he cited his own ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’). No Dylan composition, however, has ever before embraced this amount of musical intertext. The intertextuality of ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, and of ‘Murder Most Foul’ in particular, combines deep collective emotions with the return of Dylan the trickster.  We can be sure that Dylanite research will continue on an album and a song that the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard times.

 

Note added 29 June 2020: This post reprises and updates material from my posts of 28 March and 19 April 2020 (on Murder Most Foul) and of 18 April 2020 (on I Contain Multitudes).

JOSÉ SARAMAGO CONFERENCE COIMBRA 2018: PUBLICATION OF PAPERS

Now published in Portugal, by the University of Coimbra press, are the collected papers from the excellent conference José Saramago: 20 Anos com o Prémio Nobel, held in Coimbra from 8 to 10 October 2018 (https://www.josesaramago.org/congresso-internacional-jose-saramago-20-anos-premio-nobel-coimbra-8-10-outubro/; see also entry on this blog for 19 October 2018). The keynote addresses will be published in a separate volume by the Fundação José Saramago.

The new volume exists in print and electronic form. Details are:

José Saramago: 20 Anos com o Prémio Nobel, ed. Carlos Reis, Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 2020, 822 pp.

I took part in this conference and my paper (in English) is included in the proceedings: ‘The Reception of José Saramago’s O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis in the anglophone world: translation and criticism’, pp. 143-158. It is also on-line at: http://www.yatrarollason.info/files/SaramagotranslationRicardoReisPAPER.pdf

Three haikus

From a family event in April, I offer three haikus, following at a distance in the footsteps of the inimitable master Basho

BOB DYLAN’S ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’ AND ITS MUSIC INTERTEXT

This is an updated and enlarged version of a text first published on this blog on 28 March 2020, the day after the song’s release online. I have kept the original entry as first impressions.

In what we can but call hard times, on 27 March 2020 Bob Dylan treated his fans to his first newly released original song since 2012 – indeed, the first newly composed original to surface since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The song appeared online at:

and was introduced by its author thus:

‘Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.’ – Bob Dylan

The song, entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’, is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, decades years on from the appalling event in 1963, but is also a tribute to (mostly) musical intertextuality. It is further distinctive as being Bob Dylan’s longest song to date, clocking in at 16:54 minutes and dethroning the previous champion from 1997 , ‘Highlands’ (16:29).

The title is from Shakespeare, from ‘Hamlet’ (Act 1, Scene 5, 27-28), when the ghost of Hamlet’s father declares of his own death, ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is / But this most foul, strange and unnatural’. The phrase ‘murder most foul’ recurs at the end of each stanza. So prominent a Shakespearean reference serves to strengthen the argument of Andrew Muir’s recent book ‘Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing Of It’ linking the two bards. Dylan has sourced ‘Hamlet’ twice before, allotting Ophelia a whole stanza of ‘Desolation Row’ and quoting her evocation of the ‘primrose path’ [to hell] in the Tell-Tale Signs version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin”. Shakespeare also features in the new song in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth (whose husband’s phrase ‘walking shadow’ Dylan had earlier quoted in ‘Forgetful Heart’), as well as the line ‘Death will come when it comes’, which harks back to Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene 5, 36-37 – ‘Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come’).

Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy before now, at least twice. In ‘I Shall Be Free’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he imagines ‘President Kennedy calling me up’ on the phone, and the box set ‘Trouble No More’ includes in its DVD part a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham [Lincoln], Martin [Luther King] and John [Kennedy]’.

Schematically, we may divide the new song into two parts, the first focusing on the assassination and the second consisting mainly of musical and cinematic intertexts. The dividing line comes when Dylan addresses the ghost of the late DJ Wolfman Jack and asks him in repeated imperatives (‘Play …’) to broadcast radio-style a whole series of works or artists. The result looks something like a title list from Dylan’s erstwhile radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, although without any obvious single theme.

The cultural references, for the most part in the song’s second part, are abundant to the point of plethora and are calculated to keep the hardcore fans busy. They are almost all at the popular end of culture, although high culture is briefly represented when Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’) puts in a cameo appearance with his Moonlight Sonata. The cinema references include a string of actors – Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself.

The musical allusions, through song titles, artist names or direct quotes, embrace a whole multiplicity of genres in a gloriously disorganised journey through (mostly) US popular music (there is some British representation). We find old-time (‘Marching Through Georgia’), jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nina Simone), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James), blues (Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and ‘St James Infirmary’, the song which Dylan drew on for ‘Blind Willie McTell’), rock’n’roll (‘Let the Good Times Roll’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Woody Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

In a few cases Dylan directly links song and artist (e.g. Etta James and ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’) – see Appendix IA. In others he names the artist (Patsy Cline, Charlie Parker) but not any song (or, for jazz artists, instrumental piece) – see Appendix 1B. In the majority of instances, however, what we have is a vocal or instrumental composition with no artist name attached. It is here that we may suspect Dylan has sent out a challenge to his fans of the type:  ‘pin an artist to this song’.

I have done my best to respond to such a challenge by compiling, from the internet and from my own music collection, a list of what I believe are at least plausible artist-song links (see Appendix ID). Others may of course wish to suggest other artists: my list is offered as a contribition to debare. One element I think is worth emphasising is the freauency with which a song turns out to have been recorded by one or other of the unchallenged greats of US popular music – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley – those figures who we mention in the same breath as Bob Dylan himself.

The intertextuality includes Dylan self-referencing and self-quoting (see Appendix IC). We may note what to my knowledge is the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive, in the line: ‘Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime’ – the references being presumably to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ number ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa’ and to the heinous crime that was the Tulsa race massacres of 1921. The song ‘Memphis in June’ (by Hoagy Carmichael) had already been referenced by Dylan in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; the phrase ‘soul of a nation’ appeared on one of the outtakes of  ‘Dignity’ that appeared on Tell-Tale Signs; Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan; and the phrase ‘they killed him’ echoes another song about political assassination,  Kris Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ as covered by Dylan on ‘Knocked Out Loaded’. Notably, these self-references are for the most part to cover versions, the one significant exception, in a bold metatextual gesture, being ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself  – as cited verbatim in the closing verse: ‘Play “Murder Most Foul” (!)’, which places the whole song under the sign of a challenging circularity.

That circularity pertains to what we may call a certain ludic dimension in this song. Some on the internet share my own impression that ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ was never recorded by ‘the great Bud Powell’ (though it was by Ella Fitzgerald) – in which case Dylan would be asking the Wolfman’s ghost to play a non-existent track. Equally, at least three times Dylan puckishly demands that the DJ play a title – ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Merchants of Death’, ‘Lonely are the Brave’ – which research reveals not be not a song at all, but a film. Here we may recall Dylan’s description in ‘Chronicles’ of a library so inclusive it houses volumes such as ‘Sophocles’ book on the name and nature of the gods’, or ‘The Athenian General’ by Thucydides, which do not exist. In ‘Murder Most Foul’, we may conclude, some of the time and despite the deep seriousness of the song’s main theme, Dylan is artfully playing with his audience.

Meanwhile, this is not the first time Dylan has engaged in ‘song-within-song’ (I offer a no doubt incomplete list of previous examples in Appendix II, including ‘Sara’ where Dylan cites his own ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’!)). No Dylan composition, however, has ever before embraced this amount of musical intertext. His motivation in delivering such a catalogue may be ambivalent. Are we talking about popular music as an embodiment of the American culture threatened by the killing of Kennedy, or music as an incomplete and partial transcendence of the painful challenges of real life?

Both dimensions are surely there, and meanwhile we can be sure that Dylanite research will continue on this song, which the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard times.

 

Note added 29 June 2020: See also my post of 28 June 2020, on Rough and Rowdy Ways. 

***

APPENDIX I – MUSICAL INTERTEXT IN ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’

1)         Artists named by Dylan but not linked to composition

Art Pepper

Charlie Parker

Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks + Lindsey Buckingham)

Jelly Roll Morton

John Lee Hooker

Oscar Peterson

Patsy Cline    

Thelonious Monk

2)         Compositions with titles cited or quoted – officially recorded by Dylan

Blood In My Eyes – Mississippi Sheiks; Bob Dylan 

Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan

Mystery Train – Junior Parker; Elvis Presley; Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Pretty Boy Floyd –  Woody Guthrie; Bob Dylan

They Killed Him – Kris Kristofferson; Bob Dylan

3)         Compositions with titles cited or quoted: artist/composition linked by Dylan

I Want to Hold Your Hand – Beatles

I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James

Blue Sky – Allman Brothers (Dickey Betts)

Love Me or Leave Me – Bud Powell (?) (or Ella Fitzgerald? – see section 4 below)

Take it to the Limit – Eagles (Don Henley, Glenn Frey)

4)         Compositions with titles cited or title or other elements quoted Dylan but not linked to artist: artist(s)/composition linked by author’s research

(NB: for ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ I have named two different compositions as credible candidates)

All That Jazz – Ella Fitzgerald

Another One Bites the Dust – Queen

Anything Goes – Frank Sinatra

Baby Scratch My Back  Slim Harpo

Blood Stained Banner – The Williamsons

Cash on the Barrelhead – Louvin Brothers; Gram Parsons

Crossroads – Robert Johnson; Eric Clapton with Cream

Cry Me a River – Julie London; Linda Ronstadt

Deep Elem Blues – Jerry Garcia

Deep in a Dream – Frank Sinatra

Dizzy Miss Lizzy – Larry Williams; Beatles

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Nina Simone; Animals

Down in the Boondocks – Billy Joe Royal; Ry Cooder

Drivin’ Wheel 1- Roosevelt Sykes

Drivin’ Wheel 2 – Emmylou Harris

Dumbarton’s Drums 1 – Corries

Dumbarton’s Drums 2 – Royal Scots

Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey – Gerry and the Pacemakers

Going Down Slow – Guitar Slim

In God We Trust – Hillsong Worship

Key to the Highway – Little Walter; Big Bill Broonzy; Eric Clapton

Let the Good Times Roll – Louis Jordan

Lonely at the Top – Randy Newman

Lonesome Road (Long Lonesome Road) – Ian and Sylvia; Joan Baez

Long Black Limousine – Elvis Presley

Love Me or Leave Me – Ella Fitzgerald

Lucille – Little Richard

Marching Through Georgia – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason: Tennessee Ernie Ford

Memphis in June – Hoagy Carmichael; Annie Lennox

Misty – Ella Fitzgerald

Moonlight Sonata – Beethoven

Nature Boy – Nat King Cole

On the Street Where You Live – Vic Damone

One Night of Sin – Elvis Presley

Only the Good Die Young – Billy Joel

Saint James Infirmary – Louis Armstrong

Stella By Starlight – (vocal) Frank Sinatra; (instrumental) Stan Getz; Miles Davis

Take Me Back to Tulsa – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys; Merle Haggard

That Old Devil Moon – (vocal) Frank Sinatra; (instrumental) Clifford Jordan

The Old Rugged Cross – Alan Jackson; Johnny Cash

Tom Dooley – Kingston Trio

Tommy Can You Hear Me  – The Who

Twilight Time – Platters

Wake Up Little Susie – Everly Brothers; Simon and Garfunkel

Walk On By – Dionne Warwick

What’d I Say – Ray Charles

What’s New Pussycat – Tom Jones  

APPENDIX II – Previous examples of song-within-song in Dylan

A Day in the Life – Roll on John

Amazing Grace – Foot of Pride

Danny Boy – Foot of Pride

Dixie – Man of Peace

Memphis in June – Tight Connection to my Heart

My Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup – Black Diamond Bay

Nearer My God to Thee – Caribbean Wind

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Dylan) – Sara

Strike Up the Band – Handy Dandy

Which Side Are You On? – Desolation Row

BOB DYLAN’s’ NEW SONG ‘I CONTAIN MULTITUDES’ – FROM WALT WHITMAN TO EDGAR ALLAN POE

Hard on the heels of Bob Dylan’s recent, epic on-line song ‘Murder Most Foul’ (see entry on this blog for 28 March 2020), and still in this difficult springtime of 2020, comes another previously unreleased number, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, clocking in at 4:36 minutes and, while shorter than its lengthy predecessor, still replete with allusions in numbers enough to keep the planet’s Dylanites happily occupied.

 

Like ‘Murder Most Foul’, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ takes its title and refrain from the literary tradition: if the first was from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, the second honours another national bard nearer home, being taken from ‘Song of Myself’ by the poet often considered America’s finest, Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)’.

Intertextuality inhabits the new song, albeit a shade less thickly than in ‘Murder Most Foul’. Dylan mines the British poetic tradition declaring: ‘I sing songs of experience like William Blake’, thus echoing a Blakeian title (he had earlier quoted the great poet and mystic in ‘Roll on John’ on ‘Tempest’). There is also an indirect Dylan self-reference in the line ‘Red Cadillac and a black moustache’, which is the verbatim title of a song of 1957 from the Sun Records stable, which Dylan covered on a tribute album in 2001. There is even a reference back to ‘Murder Most Foul’ in the line ‘I play Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin’s preludes’: the earlier song mentioned Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, and indeed ‘Chopin’s preludes’ could be traced back to T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’.

However, arguably the greatest intertextual find in the new song comes in the line ‘Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr Poe’. Edgar Allan Poe allusions in Dylan songs are hardly new (most recently, ‘Tempest’ contains several), Dylan evokes Poe in his prose works and in interviews, and indeed I have myself studied the Dylan/Poe connection in an article of 2009 at: www.atlantisjournal.org/old/ARCHIVE/31.2/2009Rollason.pdf

Nonetheless, unless I am mistaken this is the first time Dylan has actually *named* the celebrated Bostonian in the text of a song (the Beatles did so years ago in ‘I Am the Walrus’). The allusion is of course to Poe’s tale of 1843, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, whose title Dylan cited in his song ‘Need A Woman’ (as sung on the record, though not in the print version in ‘Lyrics’) and which also gave him the name of his 2008 compilation ‘Tell-Tale Signs’. As if all this were not enough, the line immediately following, ‘Got skeletons in the walls of people I know’ also has Poesque connotations, recalling the fate of the immured Fortunato in another of the author’s most famous tales, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.

‘I Contain Multitudes’ can be approached from multiple perspectives: Bob Dylan has always contained multitudes. Meanwhile, that at this late stage in his career a song should surface containing a direct invocation of ‘Mr Poe’ marks a delightful and unexpected gift to his followers from the greatest English-language songwriter of modern times.

 

Note added 29 June 2020: See also my post of 28 June 2020 on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

SHORT STORY: THE LIBRARY OF LELAB

 

This story was written for a family writing event at Easter. Comments welcome!

THE LIBRARY OF LELAB

by Christopher Rollason, 13 April 2020

The Library of Lelab is situated at the centre of our city of the same name. It began in the old French tongue as Le Laboratoire: the laboratory city for a better world, the place where dreams were worked on till they came true. Today in the year 3220, twelve arduous centuries after the new world’s inception, we all know we have created the perfect living and thinking environment and very little needs to change. Thus I tell you as I sit at my librarian-in-chief’s desk on a raised platform at the library’s beating heart, gentle ayurvedic music playing as I write.

The entirety of our city is constructed in glass, plain or coloured or stained, transparent, translucent or opaque. To reach our library one passes through the complex that surrounds it, which we call Plaza Daedalus. In some ways it is like a conference centre from the ancient era, though today, now that all points of view converge on each other, we have long since replaced those outmoded places with Affirmation Centres. Around our library are restaurants, cafeterias, lecture theatres, concert halls, cinemas – all locations that serve to stimulate our material or intellectual tastebuds, which are open twenty-four hours a day and which we can never under any circumstances whatever imagine being closed  A glass rainbow bridge called Bifrost connects the plaza to the wider world.

The library’s bookshelves are in multiple shades of glass, lightly tinted according to class of book but not so strongly as to make the spines and titles anything but readable. Each book exists in two manifestations: a physical, leather-bound master copy, and its infinitely reproducible cybergenerated simulacrum that readers can have printed out in three dimensions. We call the first avatar the Luther copy, and the second the Gutenberg reproduction.  And invisible links connect library and books direct to the readers’ minds, which we the librarians can read.

If anything marks out our library as totally different from its – very partial – precursors in the old world, it is a trait as simple as it is vital: it only houses good books. Nothing can be written or published today that does not conform to our time’s highest ethical standards. Of course we do not reject the great books of the past. Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes are here, only with red-letter warnings emblazoned on their title pages that these books may reflect attitudes of their authors’ remote time which could not be accepted today. The past is a foreign country, but among our most requested books are the works of Berrian, who long ago first articulated the wholesome principles by which our authors now write.

Surrounded by the coruscating tints of the glass shelves, when I gaze at each and every leather-bound volume nearest me I feel transfixed. Over long centuries, starting from our prehistory in the murky epoch before today’s reticular links existed, we have successfully purified the human mind. And so each day we celebrate our Library of Lelab.

ON READING JOSH MALERMAN’S NOVEL “BIRD BOX” IN DIFFICULT DAYS

On 1 January 2019 I posted on this blog about Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box”, a film made in 2018 and based on Josh Malerman’s novel of that name from 2014. At the time I located the film, with its imaginary pandemic, within the post-apocalyptic genre and related it to José Saramago’s novel ‘Blindness’ (‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’).

What I did not anticipate was the uncanny premonitoriness of ‘Bird Box’: there was no way of knowing that in its content and tone it would anticipate things that would come to pass in 2020. Very recently I remembered the film and decided to see it again. Inevitably, in the time of the coronavirus the film had new reverberations. I then felt impelled to read Josh Malerman’s novel.

 

Malerman, in third person but viewing events through the prism of his protagonist, Malorie, narrates the course of a pandemic whose effects include the breakdown of habitual social and economic activity (‘the entire globe is shut in’ – 277), the collapse of mobility and the near-compulsory wearing of, if not masks, blindfolds. There are repeated references to the ‘new world’ (e.g. 226, 227) that has come into being, and to the sensation that people ‘will never be free again’ (358), that the era when folks ‘walked the streets freely’ (330) has gone for ever. Horrendous acts occur, yet at the end hope resurges though community and children and a possible refuge from the worst of the pandemic is adumbrated.

Those who found the film spellbinding are also likely to be hooked by the book. Indeed, in a sign that the subjects raised by ‘Bird Box’ are ongoing, a sequel, to be titled ‘Malorie’, will be published in July. This second novel has been announced by Josh Malerman in a conversation at:

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/bird-box-sequel-malorie-sandra-bullock-netflix-josh-malerman-a8832111.html

and we can be sure that this time round, the story told by Malerman will be read differently = for better or worse, and let us only hope for the better.

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Josh Malerman, ‘Bird Box’, Harper Voyager, 2014, 381 pp., ISBN 978-0-00-752990-2

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Note added 30 July 2020:

‘Malorie’, Josh Malerman’s sequel to ‘Bird Box’ was indeed published in July 2020. I have already read it and found it a worthy continuation. It did not disappoint, but it leaves loose ends to the point where I am convinced this can only imply a third volume, and thus for the moment I reserve comment as any speculative analogies or comparisons could prove totally wrong. Let us meanwhile see if a second film materialises!

A GIFT IN HARD TIMES: BOB DYLAN REGALES HIS FANS WITH NEW SONG ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’

Note added 29 June 2020: I updated this piece in a new post on 19 April 2020, but have left this version here unchanged, as first impressions. Material from this post is also incorporated in my post of 28 June 2020 on the Rough and Rowdy Ways album.

Yesterday 27 March 2020, in a time of ever greater difficulty for all of us worldwide, Bob Dylan treated his fans to his first newly released original song since 2012 – indeed, the first newly composed original to surface since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The song is at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=RD3NbQkyvbw18&v=3NbQkyvbw18&feature=emb_rel_end

and was introduced online by its author thus:

‘Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.’ – Bob Dylan

The song is entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’. It is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, decades years on from the appalling event in 1963, but is also a tribute to musical and cinematic intertextuality. It is further distinctive as being Bob Dylan’s longest song to date, clocking in on my computer at 16:54 minutes and dethroning the previous champion, ‘Highlands’ (16:29) from the 1997 album ‘Time out of Mind’.

kennedy

The title is from Shakespeare, from Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5, 27-28), when the ghost of Hamlet’s father declares of his own death, ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is / But this most foul, strange and unnatural’. The phrase ‘murder most foul’ recurs at the end of each stanza. So prominent a Shakespearean reference serves to strengthen the argument of Andrew Muir’s recent book ‘Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing Of It’ linking the two cultural icons. Dylan has sourced Hamlet twice before, allotting Ophelia a whole stanza of ‘Desolation Row’ and quoting her evocation of the ‘primrose path’ [to hell] in the Tell-Tale Signs version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin”. Shakespeare also features in the new song in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth (whose husband’s phrase ‘walking shadow’ Dylan had earlier quoted in ‘Forgetful Heart’).

Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy in earlier songs, at least twice – in ‘I Shall Be Free’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he imagines ‘President Kennedy calling me up’ on the phone, and the box set ‘Trouble No More’ includes in its DVD part a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham [Lincoln], Martin [Luther King] and John [Kennedy]’.

free

 

Schematically, we may divide the new song into two parts, the first focusing on the assassination and the second consisting mainly of musical and cinematic intertexts. The dividing line comes when Dylan addresses the ghost of the late DJ Wolfman Jack and asks him in repeated imperatives (‘Play …’) to play a whole series of works or artists. The result looks something like a title list from Dylan’s erstwhile radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, although without an obvious theme.

The intertextuality includes Dylan quoting himself. The song ‘Memphis in June’ (by Hoagy Carmichael) had already been referenced in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; ‘rising sun’ recalls another cover, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on Dylan’s first album; the phrase ‘soul of a nation’ appeared on one of the outtakes of ‘Dignity’ that appeared on Tell-Tale Signs; Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan. We may also note what to my knowledge is the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive, the reference (‘scene of the crime’) being presumably to the deadly Tulsa race massacres of 1921.

The cultural references, for the most part in the song’s second part, are abundant to the point of plethora and will certainly keep the hardcore fans busy. They are almost all at the popular end of culture, although high culture is briefly represented when Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’) puts in a cameo appearance with his Moonlight Sonata. The cinema references include Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself.

The musical allusions, through song titles, artist names or direct quotes, embrace a whole multiplicity of genres in a gloriously disorganised journey through US (and occasionally UK) popular music: old-time (‘Marching Through Georgia’), jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nina Simone), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James), blues (Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and ‘St James Infirmary’, the song which Dylan drew on for ‘Blind Willie McTell’), rock’n’roll (‘Mystery Train’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

Dylan’s motivation in delivering such a catalogue may be ambivalent. Are we talking about popular music as an embodiment of the American culture threatened by the killing of Kennedy, or music as an escape from the painful challenges of real life?

Both dimensions are surely there, and meanwhile the Dylanite research will continue on this song, which the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard time

MERITS OF THE ACADEMIA DATABASE

I have recently joined the academic database Academia (www.academia.edu), and, having already put up a number of my papers, can report that I am more than satisfied. It is true, as some have pointed out on the internet, that the free variant is of very limited use (it informs of papers but gives no access to them) and that to get anything useful out of this site one has to choose the paying variant. Some contrast this unfavourably with Google Scholar, but Academia does have its advantages, over both the Google facility and another rival, Orcid. Unlike Google Scholar though like Orcid, Academia is user-controlled: authors can put up their material themselves, whereas Google Scholar creates entries automatically and there is no way for authors to create, amend, remove or restore its entries on their own work. Also, unlike both Orcid and Google Scholar, Academia, with more than 115 million users, allows direct search on an enormous and ever-growing full-text database, currently with 24 million papers – a facility that was lacking even on the otherwise exemplary and now sadly defunct site GetCited. On the downside, Academia’s interface feels a shade clunky and some functionalities are hidden away and take some finding – but that may be simply a matter of getting used to it.

I can certainly say already that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and would recommend this site to any researcher seeking a broader platform for their work.