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Salman Rushdie, Victory City: A Novel, New York: Random House, 2023, 352 pp., ISBN 978-0593243398


Victory City, Salman Rushdie’s fifteenth novel, is a challenging book to review. Its title might suggest triumph to the uninitiated, but is actually a translation of Vijayanagar, the historic South Indian city and empire which flourished from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries of the common era and constitutes the inspiration for Rushdie’s novel. The book has been generally well received, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate it (even should it not be explicitly mentioned) from the appalling circumstance of the attack on the author’s life in New York state on 12 August 2022, which left Rushdie with life-changing injuries including the loss of an eye, a kidney and the use of a hand, and made Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa a near-reality thirty-three years on. The novel was finished and with the publishers well before the attack (it was published in February 2023), but the fact that it happened will inevitably colour reviewers’ and readers’ interpretations. The present review will not attempt to establish how far the fictional events of the novel (in which cruelty is not lacking) might anticipate what happened to its author. Instead, it will concentrate on two significant dimensions of Rushdie’s narration, namely genre and gender.  

Generically, Rushdie is famed as a key exponent of magic realism in its Indian manifestation, with Midnight’s Children viewed as the canonic example. Magic realist elements are present in most of his other novels, though some use it more sparingly than others (there is little in Shalimar the Clown and none at all in The Golden House). In some cases we find a fusion of magic realism with other genres – science fiction in Quichotte or The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and, notably, historical fiction in The Enchantress of Florence, a work rather more superficial than the new novel but nonetheless its forbear (both include scholarly bibliographies, in apparent vindication of their historicity).

In Victory City, Rushdie takes the basic historical fact of Vijayanagar (which he renames as Bisnaga on a cue from Portuguese), and traces city and empire’s rise and fall with a major infusion of magic realism. At the same time he employs the conventions of the historical novel, as established some two centuries ago by Walter Scott, mingling real and imaginary characters and events. We may note that if Scott’s more successful historical novels tend to be those set in his native Scotland, Victory City is one of the most India-centred of Rushdie’s fictions: after a detour in the US with his two previous novels, Rushdie now returns with a vengeance to Indian themes, more intensively, it might be said, than in any novel since Midnight’s Children. Unity of place is largely observed as the narration scarcely ventures outside South India: there are Chinese and Italian characters and a succession of Portuguese travellers loosely based on real traders, but the main characters are Indian through and through.

Regarding characters, a figure such as the empire’s longest-serving monarch, the unpleasant but powerful Krishnadevaraya, is based on a real historical personage, and historians of South India will no doubt have their word to say about where Rushdie follows the history and where, conversely, he invents. However, the book’s undoubted protagonist, the several times queen Pampa Kampana, is entirely invented. Pampa Kampana is at the heart of the book’s magical elements: she is granted special powers by the goddess Parvati, and thus lives for 247 years, can transform into a bird, and creates the city ex nihilo from magic seeds. The book’s magic realism is thus of a strong sort, inducting the reader ‘into the very heart of the fabulous’ (180). Rushdie also makes Pampa Kampana the ultimate author of the text, forefronting her imaginary epic the Jayaparajaya (or Victory and Defeat), presented as ‘her book, the book of which this book is but a pale shadow’ (250), a worthy companion to the Ramayana and Mahabharata,and offering his text as either a summary of her narration or as verbatim ‘quotation’ (in both cases of course ‘translated’ into English). Rushdie thus uses the strategy of an imagined authoritative text and its translation to endow his work with literary credibility, incidentally inviting comparison with Cervantes’ similar sleight-of-hand in the Quijote. Generically then, this is a complex text that fuses two very different genres while also affirming its own textuality.

If we move from genre to gender, we find Rushdie, not for the first time, bringing to the fore the situation of women, in this case in India. Bisnaga is imagined as an urban community where women’s participation in society goes well beyond their conventional roles. Pampa Kampana, forced to watch her mother burn as a sati, vows that women will never be so oppressed again, pledging to ensure that ‘no more women ever have to walk into halls of flame, and that all women are treated better than orphans at men’s mercy in the dark’ (32) – that ‘there will be no more burning of living women on dead men’s pyres in Bisnaga’ (174). Under her suzerainty women in Bisnaga fill a multiplicity of positions, becoming poets, potters, traders, and more; the palace guard too is all-female. Pampa Kampana declares with pride: ‘We have women medicos, women accountants, women judges, and women bailiffs too’ (94), and a new equalitarian regime takes hold: ‘All over the city women were doing what, elsewhere in the country, was thought of as work unsuitable for them … There were women policing the streets, and working as scribes, and pulling teeth, and beating mridangam drums while men danced to the rhythm’ (36). Equally, a generalised more liberal sexual and behavioural regime takes hold, with Khajuraho-like statues being displayed in public – though it does not last and is followed by a backlash. Pampa Kampana herself eventually falls victim to cruel and mutilating institutional violence, but her authorial role continues to the end and her epic is preserved, to be rediscovered long after.

A historical novel will inevitably tempt readers to find analogies with the present. Here for Victory City, rather than seek parallels with contemporary figures or events, I would suggest that Rushdie, in line with the notion that Vijayanagar/Bisnaga passed through a number of ‘golden ages’, is implying a certain model of history, namely one of alternating libertarian and authoritarian currents. The first prevails for a while, then the other, then with luck a lesser version of the first: ‘the truth about these so-called golden ages is that they never last very long’ (174).. The most libertarian epoch was the first under Pampa Kampana’s aegis; once gone, it was never recovered in full, though other, briefer more liberal regimes did recur, up to the city’s final destruction. In the end history becomes a ‘brief illusion of happy victories set in a long continuum of bitter, disillusioning defeats’ (138). Such a model may not be without its relevance for our times.

Rushdie ends his novel with its protagonist’s decease while her epic poem survives, and with her last words as relayed by the narrator: ‘Words are the only victors’ (330). Here as the reader finishes the book the fate of its author inevitably looms into view, with the creative power of the word affirmed in all its redemptive force as a healing balm, for the book’s characters, its author, its readers, and ultimately for all who care to heed its call.



Today, 7 February 2023, is official publication day for ‘Victory City’, at the age of 75 Salman Rushdie’s twenty-first book and sixteenth work of fiction. Reviews are out already, for the most part favourable but at the same time alarmed. Without exception, readings of a novel set in India that combines historical fiction and magic realism will inevitably be coloured (even should they consciously not mention it) by the appalling circumstance of the attack on his life in New York state on 12 August 2022, which has left him with life-changing injuries including the loss of an eye, a kidney and the use of a hand. The novel was finished and with the publishers before that attack, but the fact that it happened will now inevitably affect reviewers’ and readers’ interpretations, and meantime Rushdie will be unable to promote the book in person. Whatever the presumed perpetrator may say, that heinous act was, 33 years on, obviously in implementation – partial but intended as full – of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of 14 February 1989.

The eminent French critic Roland Barthes wrote in his day of the ‘death of the author’, arguing that determining the meaning of a literary text may be confided to the reader. That philosophy fostered a whole generation of textual (rather than biographical) readings of literature. Such concerns are reflected today in the debates over whether one can or cannot separate the art from the artist. In the case of Rushdie, it is, paradoxically, the intended – and all but brought about – literal death of the author that now renders virtually impossible the application to this novel of the Barthesian death of the author. In the circumstances, roman à clef readings and various forms of biographical overinterpretation may be expected. I have just received my copy of Rushdie’s book and will be reviewing it as soon as I have read it. I cannot project in advance in what will consist my reading amid so many, but while I feel this is likely to prove to be one of the best of its author’s works, I am sure that, for us all, in order to read this novel it will be impossible not to take into account not only the intended or imagined death, but also, quite literally and in its different dimensions, the life of the author.

Note: for my review, see entry for 13 March 2023 on this blog.

Two new reviews of my book ‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan’

Two new reviews of my book ‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan’

My book of 2021, ‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan’, has now attracted a total of five (all favourable) reviews, and I am pleased to share details of two new ones, both published in Spain (in English). For earlier reviews, please see my blog entry for 17 January 2022).

Review by Nadia López-Peláez Akalay, The Grove: Working Papers on English Studies

(University of Jaén, Spain), Vol 29, 2022, pp. 153-156

Review by Marita Nadal Blasco, Nexus (Spain), 2002-2, pp.73-75

Nexus is a online-only journal. The Grove exists both online and in print.  

My thanks to both reviewers !


Details of my book are :

Christopher Rollason, ‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations’: The Literary Bob Dylan, Gateshead (UK), Two Riders, 2021 – 221 pp., paperback, ISBN 978-1-9196390-0-0

See :


The Dylan Review Vol. 4, No. 2, with review of Greil Marcus, Folk Music

Now online is the latest issue (Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2022/2023) of the scholarly journal The Dylan Review:

Among the interesting and varied contributions are Jonathan Hodgers’ excellent review of Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song, Richard Thomas’s erudite classicist’s reading of Raphael Falco’s ‘No One to Meet’, Nicholas Bornholt’s reverberative dissection of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, and Robert Reginio’s full report on the 2022 Tulsa conference on ‘Dylan and the Beats’.

Also included is my own review of Greil Marcus’s latest book, ‘Folk Music: a Dylan biography in seven songs’, (Christopher Rollason, pp. 14-20).

The young Bob Dylan’s love letters and the Livraria Lello bookshop in Porto (Portugal)

When one thinks of Bob Dylan, Portugal is not a country that comes immediately to mind, though his song of 1975, ‘Sara’, does have the line ‘Drinking white rum in a Portugal bar’.  

Now, however, a surprising eventuality arises, as featured by the Portuguese news site Renascença on 13 January 2023:

Hugo Monteiro, ‘Livraria Lello revela cartas de amor de um Bob Dylan « adolescente e apaixonado »’

[‘Lello bookshop reveals love letters of Bob Dylan as « teenager in love »]


The city of Porto’s historic bookshop Livraria Lello has hitherto been best known outside Portugal as neighbouring on the equally historic café the Majestic, where J.K. Rowling is believed to have drafted notes over her café for the first Harry Potter book. Now comes a new international connection! Lello recently acquired at an auction a lot of 42 of Dylan’s early letters, of which three are now on public display on their premises. All three are love letters from the then Robert Allen Zimmerman’s teenage days.  –

A Dylanite surprise indeed! More (in Portuguese) at the url above …


Acaba de salir en el mercado hispanohablante un nuevo estudio en profundidad de la inagotable literatura de Edgar Allan Poe. Se trata del libro de Eusebio Llácer Lorca, El placer estético del terror: tres cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe (Valencia: Publicacions de l’Universitat de València: 2022).

El autor desvela los mecanismos literarios por los cuales Poe despierta sensaciones del miedo en el lector, a través de una lectura atenta de tres de sus relatos más conseguidos: ‘La máscara de la muerte roja’, ‘El pozo y el péndulo’ y ‘El tonel de Amontillado’.

Me complace agregar que el volumen empieza con un prólogo de mi autoría, y puedo recomendar este valioso estudio en pleno conocimiento de causa, a todos los que se interesen por la obra de Poe.


Now launched on the Spanish-speaking market is a new in-depth study illuminating the work of the inexhaustible Edgar Allan Poe, namely Eusebio Llácer Lorca, El placer estético del terror: tres cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe (Valencia: Publicacions de l’Universitat de València: 2022).

In this book the author explicates the literary mechanisms by which Edgar Allan Poe arouses sensations of fear in the reader, through the close reading of three of his finest tales: ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.

I am pleased to add that this volume begins with a prologue of which I am the author, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to all interested in Poe.  

Boss Soul: Bruce Springsteen’s ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE

When a singer-songwriter puts out an album of covers, they are usually making some kind of musical statement, and Bruce Springsteen’s new release and 21st studio album, Only the Strong Survive, is no exception. The Boss, creator of such immortal works as Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the USA and The Rising now, for the second time in his long career, offers his public a collection of songs composed by others. For his earlier covers effort, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions from 2006, the guiding thread was genre, in an album consisting of traditional US folk material recorded in the footsteps of folk icon Pete Seeger. It is genre too that defines the new album, but in this case a very different genre – namely soul music, jewel of the black community but also a crossover genre much appreciated by white audiences. Typically seen as a stadium rock musician, Springsteen has never confined himself exclusively to that area, and the latest evidence is this collection of fifteen songs in which he pays tribute to some of the finest of soul artists – interpreting songs mostly from the 1960s and 1970s (a few numbers are more recent), with particular, but not exclusive, attention to Detroit’s famed Motown label and its archetypal soul creations.  

The album’s title, evoking resistance and resilience, has a contemporary resonance, but at the same time suggests a project not exempt from possible rivalry on Springsteen’s part with his predecessors and peers. The title comes from the album’s opening track, ‘Only the Strong Survive’, a song first recorded in 1968 by cult soul artist Jerry Butler but also subsequently covered by Elvis Presley. Some on learning of the title may have thought in the first place of Elvis and (mis)read the album as a declaration of competition (or equality) of the Boss with the late King.

As regards living artists, it may not be coincidence that this offering comes not so long after Bob Dylan’s recent experimentation with cover versions in the ’Sinatra trilogy’, his triad of standards associated with Frank Sinatra and his classic epoch. The genres are different, but the covering impulse is similar. Indeed, there is also a transmedia parallel with Dylan’s recent book The Philosophy of Modern Song, with its commentaries on 66 songs selected by the master songwriter. Springsteen in a sense is doing on record what Dylan does in his book, both artists highlighting songs by others that are important to them: both offerings could thus be called playlists. There is no direct overlap in content between the two respective works. Dylan nonetheless includes a fair sprinkling of soul/R&B numbers among the song choices in his book, taking on board one act (Motown’s the Temptations) also featured by Springsteen. In The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan chooses the Temptations’ ‘Ball of Confusion’, though it has recently emerged that ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, the song now representing the group on Springsteen’s album, has actually been covered by Dylan! He laid it down in an emotive rendering in the Shot of Love sessions in 1981, and as of 2021 that recording is available on the 16th volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Springtime in New York. In a further Dylan/Springsteen/soul music connection, we may note that Dylan’s playlist in his book also includes Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, a Motown hit covered by Springsteen on his album Live 1975-1985.

Only the Strong Survive’s packaging lists the songs together with songwriter credits, in line with usual practice; the album’s Wikipedia entry goes one further and, in a gesture to be welcomed by fans, lists not only the songwriters but also the artists who first recorded each song: Some of the most celebrated of Motown acts feature, certainly – the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops – albeit not with their most famous songs: so no ‘My Girl’, ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There ‘ or ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, but instead ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ (Supremes) and ‘Seven Rooms of Gloom’ and ‘When She Was My Girl’ (Four Tops), and, as we have seen, ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ (Temptations), Other artists represented may not be household names outside the soul community, but are nonetheless the creators of recognised classic songs – these include Jerry Butler (the title track and ‘Hey, Western Union Man’), Tyrone Davis (‘Turn Back the Hands of Time’), and William Bell (‘Any Other Way’ and ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover’), as well as another Motown act, Jimmy Ruffin (‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted’). At the end of the track ‘Soul Days’ (originally recorded by Dobie Gray), Springsteen reaches out beyond his playlist by namechecking more soul artists (‘I want to hear some Wilson Pickett’, a wish repeated for Joe Tex and Sam and Dave). A wish is party granted, as in fact the surviving half of the much-loved Sam and Dave duo, Sam Moore, appears as guest vocalist on two of the tracks, namely ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ and ‘Soul Days’ itself. Further outreach is provided by the inclusion of the Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’, a song written in 1985 as a postmortem homage to two giants of soul music, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. On another note, one cannot avoid noticing that Diana Ross and the Supremes, with the valedictory ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, are the only female original artists to feature unequivocally on the playlist (I say ‘unequivocally’ as Springsteen’s take on Ben E. King’s classic ‘Don’t Play That Song’ – he allows himself a spoken add-on at the end – does not strictly follow King’s original and exhibits similarities with the later hit version by Aretha Franklin). Also to be noted is the fact that one song, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, was actually first recorded by a white artist, Frankie Valli.

With this carefully chosen song selection under his belt, how does Bruce Springsteen, as a white superstar, shape up to the challenge of interpreting this black material? There is a tradition of such interpretations, not always successful. Classic soul covers by white acts such as The Band’s ‘Don’t Do It’ or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ have to be balanced against much more superficial renditions like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Harlem Shuffle’ or the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dancing in the Street’. Regarding entire albums, a successful instance of such projects is one known to few but deserving of greater fame, the sensitive and vibrant collaboration of 1971 by Laura Nyro with Labelle, Gonna Take a Miracle.

Close listening to Springsteen’s fifteen covers in parallel with the originals should convince the listener that he has risen admirably to the challenge. The arrangements, featuring strings, horn section and backup vocalists, are more than respectful of the originals, as are Springsteen’s warm, passionate and carefully articulated vocals. The singer gets inside the songs and the deep emotions they convey, with a vocal approach that recalls some of his more intimate albums such as Tunnel of Love or Western Stars. There are a few minor lyric changes here and there, but nothing to write home about. More significant are the additions brought to a couple of songs, namely ‘Soul Days’ (as seen above) and ‘Don’t Play That Song’. On the latter Springsteen interpolates lines including ‘I remember those summer nights down by the shore / As the band played with you in my arms’, in what can only be called a Springsteenisation, a throwback to the boardwalk world of an early song like ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’. Each listener will have their favourites, but my own choice of outstanding tracks would include the title song, which in its passionate delivery matches up to Jerry Butler (and Elvis); ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, where the female backing vocals help recreate something of the energy of the Supremes’ original; and ‘Seven Rooms of Gloom’, where the Boss achieves a remarkably persuasive imitation of the unique vocal style of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs.

If this album is making a statement, it can only be to affirm the vital importance to Bruce Springsteen of classic soul as part of his musical heritage. Its chart performance (US No 8, UK No 2) suggests it is being well received by the artist’s fan base. The Boss’s admirers will also surely be tantalised by the words that appear in discreet small print on the front cover, namely ‘Covers Vol. 1’. This suggests a second volume in the offing – and if so, will it be another set of soul covers, or will it feature a different genre? Meanwhile, this album may not be Born To Run, but it is a more than welcome addition to Bruce Springsteen’s remarkable catalogue that will provide hours of listening pleasure and musical  education to the Boss’s many followers whoever they be.


Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022, 339 pp., ISBN 9781-1-4516-4870-6

The Philosophy of Modern Song, the third published book (lyrics collections apart) by Bob Dylan, the artist seen by many as the greatest songwriter of all time, is, decidedly, a strange piece of work. Since its appearance on 1 November 2022 this volume, made up of commentaries by Dylan on a choice of 66 songs pertaining to various popular music genres, none of them composed by himself, has received a flood of reviews. This abundance no doubt reflects his advanced age of 81 and his controversial Nobel literature award of 2016. Despite the plethora of already existing readings, the present review is offered as, in Dylan’s words from ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, ‘another tale to tell’ –  a contribution to a collective debate which, with Dylan, is by its nature inexhaustible.

The volume’s strangeness begins with the title. Why modern song, and why philosophy? ‘Modern’ here scarcely means contemporary. The oldest song discussed, ‘Nelly Was a Lady’ by nineteenth-century songsmith Stephen Foster, dates from 1849; the two most recent, by the Native American singer John Trudell and the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, from 2001 and 2003 respectively – and both are now dead. The overwhelming bulk of the ‘modern’ songs are thus in fact from the twentieth century (the music of whose latter part, spearheaded by the punk/New Wave generation, is represented only by Elvis Costello and the Clash).The term ‘philosophy’ has raised some eyebrows, but to me it suggests a parallel with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous essay of 1846, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, in which Poe explicates how he wrote his celebrated poem ‘The Raven’ (we may note that when discussing Stephen Foster Dylan calls him ‘the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe’ – 115).

The book consists of 66 ‘chapters’ (which we will here call entries, as some are very brief), The headings are typically structured as follows: song title-featured act-record label-year of release-composer(s). Then comes a text by Dylan, of varying characteristics: some focusing on song and artist; others offering Bob Dylan’s elucubrations on subjects such as gambling, divorce or war, related at least tenuously in some way to the songs; and others combining the two approaches. The release dates generally mark the song’s first appearance on record, though for some of the older songs the date cited is a later one.

The song selection has attracted much attention among reviewers as regards choice of artist or genre – what is in and what is out. The titles range from the deeply obscure (as with minor Sun Records rock’n’roll recordings) to the most famous of standards – Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’, or what we might call the blue triad of ‘Blue Moon’ (Dean Martin), ‘Blue Bayou’ (Roy Orbison) and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (Carl Perkins). It is useful also to note those artists not represented by an entry whom Dylan nonetheless mentions in running text, thus conferring a kind of subsidiary recognition. A strange aspect is that only once in the whole book does Bob Dylan name one of his own songs – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, as a source for Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ (9). Arguably as self-effacing is the circumstance that, while Dylan has at one time or another covered some of the chosen songs, nowhere in the book is such overlap mentioned. Those covers nonetheless include: on studio albums, ‘Blue Moon’ and the cabaret standard ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’; on heritage albums, the folk tune ‘Jesse James’, Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’; and in unreleased performances, the Clash anthem ‘London Calling’ and (with Willie Nelson) Townes van Zandt’s outlaw classic ‘Pancho and Lefty’.

As regards genre, those most represented are four in number: rock’n’roll/rockabilly, country/country blues/bluegrass, R&B/soul and crooner/cabaret/songs from the shows. The last-named category should not surprise in the wake of Dylan’s three ‘Sinatra albums’ of recent years. Unexpected though surely is the relative absence of folk material and of blues proper – Pete Seeger for folk, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed for the blues get a look-in, but there is not a single song or artist from the seminal Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell are nowhere to be seen; and bizarrely the young Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie appears only in running text. Latin rock features with a one-off from Santana, reggae not at all. The artists included are overwhelmingly from the US;  the UK representation apart from Costello and the Clash stretches to The Who. The non-Anglophone world is, laudably, represented, with the Brecht/Weill classic ‘Mack the Knife’ and Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ (‘Beyond the Sea’), both sung in English by Bobby Darin, and Domenico Modugno’s ‘Volare’ (appearing in its composer’s original Italian, though there is no mention of the celebrated Gipsy Kings version). 

There is no Beatles song among the entries, although the group or its members are, on my count, referenced a good nine times in running text (‘Fool on the Hill’ twice – 51, 96). The absence of the Fab Four is in striking contrast to the presence of other legendary artists – some appearing twice, as with Elvis Presley (‘Money Honey’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’), Johnny Cash (‘Big River’, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’) or Little Richard (‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Long Tall Sally’). A curious feature of Dylan’s selection is the virtual absence of his singer-songwriter peers, even where he is known to admire their work. Alluded to only in running text are Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen, and not namechecked at all are Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, Neil Young, and, believe it or not, Leonard Cohen. The only such singer-songwriters who do get to make it are Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and (more songwriter than singer) Jimmy Webb with ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ – in his little-known own rendition rather than the Glen Campbell version that made it famous. Meanwhile of artists who have at one time or other worked with Dylan, the Grateful Dead are there with ‘Truckin’’, but there is no sign of The Band.

Numerous commentators have drawn attention to the absence from this book’s world of women artists. Indeed, of the 66 songs only four are performed by women – Nina Simone (‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’), Cher (‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’), Rosemary Clooney (‘Come On-A My House’) and Judy Garland (‘Come Rain or Come Shine’); one may add Zola Taylor, one-fifth of the Platters on their classic track ‘My Prayer’. To be fair, women songwriters also feature (e.g. Cynthia Weil, of the Mann/Weil duo behind the Nina Simone song), and various female artists at least appear in running text, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The last-named is praised for her ‘terrific’ version of ‘Blue Bayou’, nonetheless seen as inferior to Roy Orbison’s original (170). At all events, it is hard to disagree with the diagnosis of female under-representation.

What is not there is important, but more so is what is there, especially where Dylan’s comments focus on the artist and provide information that helps appreciation of the song. This may be said of, for example, the entries on ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (here in a duet by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), Marty Robbins’ gunfighter ballad ‘El Paso’, or Dion’s Broadway-derived ‘Where or When’. At its best, Dylan’s song list has the effect of familiarising his readers/listeners with the more obscure material while deepening their appreciation of the well-known numbers. It also confirms his encyclopaedic knowledge of popular song, something he had already demonstrated on the airwaves via his Theme Time Radio Hour programme.

However, many of Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness commentaries can be perceived as, at best, tangential to the songs. Some comments are lucid and fair; others come over as idiosyncratic to the point of cantankerousness. The entry on Edwin Starr’s Motown protest classic ‘War’ (a song later covered by Bruce Springsteen, though Dylan doesn’t mention that) offers a disquisition on modern warfare whose author strangely fails to remind us that once upon a time he wrote ‘Masters of War’. Another entry, that for the Drifters’ ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’, says next to nothing about the song with its punchline ‘Who cares what picture you see’, instead launching into a lengthy paean to US cinema: this would have been of more interest elsewhere and does not seem entirely relevant as a riposte to the hedonistic Drifters.

Dylan’s texts in this strange book vary enormously in length, register and attitude. Individual readers will prefer different ones depending on their world-view, but I would hazard a guess that for the future of Dylan studies the song selection will prove to be more important than the author’s musings. The Philosophy of Modern Song will probably end up perceived as a minor work, but one which nevertheless improves our knowledge and appreciation of Bob Dylan’s world and is also a gateway to a fascinating universe of song, much of it from a past that his pages bring back to life. In the final paragraph Dylan declares that ‘music .. is of a time but also timeless, a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself’ (334). After that philosophical observation, Bob Dylan’s book closes (to quote his song ‘Going, Going, Gone’) ‘on the pages and the text’ – and opens up reflection in his readers’ and listeners’ minds.


Update, 27 December 2022

This review has now been published as part of a forum on Dylan’s book (the other participants are Bob Jope and Sid Astbury) in The Bridge. Details are:

“’Another Tale To Tell”: Review of Bob Dylan, “The Philosophy of Modern Song”’, The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 74, Winter 2022, pp. 77-81


The splendid decor of the Grand Rex venue in Paris, with its gothic and arabesque adornments recalling an Edgar Allan Poe interior, provided a fitting setting on 11 October 2022 for the first of three Parisian shows on the European leg of Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways tour – named after his most recent album from 2020 and scheduled to stretch from 2021 to 2024. This gig was actually my first opportunity to sample this tour, and before considering the concert I will make some general comments on the setlist, which has scarcely changed since the tour began.

The setlist is appended to this review as it was on 11 October, though my comments here will concern the entire tour so far. It is far from being arbitrary: indeed, it has obviously been very consciously constructed. It consists throughout of seventeen songs and currently features nine (originally eight) of the ‘new’ album’s ten tracks, the only one left out being ‘Murder Most Foul’, the sixteen-minute epic about the Kennedy assassination, presumably on grounds of length. These nine songs are complemented by seven (at first eight and later briefly six) older Dylan songs and one cover version (briefly two and later changed). The two classes of song (from the ‘new’ album/not from it) are carefully interspersed so that no more than two of the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs or two of the ‘old’ songs are performed sequentially: alternance rules, and the message is surely that the old complements the new and vice versa. There have been very few changes since the tour began. Over time so far, we have had ‘Early Roman Kings’ from 2012’s Tempest edged out by the new album’s ‘Crossing the Rubicon’; the Sinatra cover ‘Melancholy Mood’ substituted by ‘That Old Black Magic’ from the same stable; and, very briefly in California, for three shows, ‘Every Grain of Sand’ surprisingly replaced as closing number by a cover of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Friend of the Devil’. For the rest, the keyword is continuity: the setlist is a work of art.

The selection of ‘old’ songs might have appeared eccentric to some. This is no greatest hits selection, far from it – as commentators have inevitably observed, no ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, no ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Nor is any particular album privileged, with the only two songs from the same album – ‘Watching the River Flow’ and ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ – being from a compilation (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971). Of the remaining Dylan compositions retained, the oldest is ‘Most Likely You Go Away (and I’ll Go Mine)’ (from Blonde on Blonde, 1966); the best-known ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (from John Wesley Harding, 1967); the most controversial ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, from Dylan’s religious period (Slow Train Coming, 1979); and the best ‘Every Grain of Sand’, also from that period (Shot of Love, 1981), but on a whole other poetic level. This leaves the particular case of ‘To Be Alone With You’, from Dylan’s ‘country period’ (Nashville Skyline, 1969), rewritten to the point where it comes over as virtually a different and more complex song. Virtually all the ‘old’ songs have undergone, to a greater or lesser degree, lyric changes which are not necessarily improvements, the outstanding and fortunate exception being an effectively unchanged ‘Every Grain of Sand’.

To return to Paris, it is gratifying to signal that the collective atmosphere in the packed-to-capacity concert hall was extremely warm, convivial and sympathetic to a Dylan who was visibly in a good mood and obviously relishing the songs. His delivery tended to separate the songs’ lines and phrases into fragments, a technique which may be related to his age but which has the virtue of capturing phrases for reflection. This technique arguably did not take too well in his delivery on the opener, ‘Watching the River Flow’, where the phrases seemed more like bleeding chunks, but was better integrated in the immediately following numbers and allowed some precious deliveries of key phrases like ‘The city of God is there on the hill’ (‘False Prophet’) or the Shakespearean ‘winter of my discontent’ (‘My Own Version of You’). At the end, ‘Every Grain of Sand’ – in itself one of the best songs he has ever written – was performed with a declamatory energy that provided a remarkable culmination to the evening. The song which received the strongest ovation of recognition was the familiar ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, but ‘new’ numbers including ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Key West’ were also greeted with strong applause, indicating that those present also knew and valued the recent material and saw Dylan as no museum-piece.

As the evening unfolded, the musicians’ performance was invariably superb, and Bob Dylan’s, though variable, at its best plumbed uncanny depths. After ‘Every Grain of Sand’, sections of the public cried out for an encore – a wish not granted, but nonetheless it was clear that artist and audience had enjoyed the spectacle to a similar degree. The Grand Rex had witnessed a fine and moving evening, and of which – for time passes – we, Bob Dylan’s audience, may not see the like again.

SETLIST (same for all this tour so far; songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) in italics)

Watching the River Flow (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)

Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine) (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

I Contain Multitudes

False Prophet

When I Paint My Masterpiece (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)

Black Rider

My Own Version of You

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding, 1967)

Crossing the Rubicon

To Be Alone With You (Nashville Skyline, 1969; rewritten)

Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

Gotta Serve Somebody (Slow Train Coming, 1979)

I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You

That Old Black Magic (Fallen Angels, 2016; Sinatra cover)

Mother of Muses

Goodbye Jimmy Reed

Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981)


The University of Jaén, cathedral city in the heartland of Spain’s olive grove country, was host on 29 and 30 September 2022 to the First International Conference on Popular Culture, an initiative conceived within the University’s English Department and the brainchild of the department’s chair, Jesús López-Peláez Casellas.

This conference had a two-strand structure. One strand comprised panels and papers on multiple different aspects of popular culture (or low culture, or mass culture); the other consisted of three plenary lectures and various papers on the work of one major artist emanating from popular culture but not confined to it, namely Bob Dylan.

The three plenary addresses on Dylan all took a holistic approach to Dylan’s work, with the emphasis on the literary and musical intertextualities that make his songwriting a culturally complex phenomenon, remembering that his hybrid art won him the Nobel prize for Literature in 2016. The plenary speakers were: Antonio Ballesteros of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (open university, Madrid); the prestigious poet and novelist Benjamín Prado, an avid Dylan fan who affirms that every one of his books contains a Dylan reference; and independent scholar and Dylan critic Christopher Rollason (myself). 

The briefer papers on Dylan covered a range of more particular facets of the artist – his relation to television advertising (Jiri Mesic), his cultivation of insult compared to Shakespeare’s (Nadia López-Peláez Akalay), and his anti-war stance (Ishan Alwan Muhsin Al-Sweidi).

The remaining papers explored the most varied topics – Spanish stereotypes in British TV comedy (José Ruiz Mas), rock poet Patti Smith’s memoirs (Pilar Sánchez Calle), TV and film franchises and intralingual dubbing (Lucas Baeyens), awakening of minds through different musical genres (Ana Valverde González), and Batman as ‘American hero’ (Benjamín Carrascal Meneses).

The qualitative standard of the contributions was high and the atmosphere was fully propitious to debate. This event demonstrated the importance of intellectual rigour in the study of popular culture, which in our times is something not to be ignored by academia. The appellation ‘first conference’ throws out the promise of more to come, a prospect which, it is to be hoped, will come to fruition following in the steps of this highly successful inaugural event.

For fellow Dylanites: My lecture was entitled ‘Relationships of ownership: Bob Dylan and his sources’, and focused on three songs (‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘With God On Our Side’ and ‘I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine’) and the older songs that lie behind them.


La Universidad de Jaén, ciudad catedralicia en el corazón de las tierras de olivares de España, acogió en los 29 y 30 de septiembre de 2022 el Primer Congreso Internacional de Culture Popular, iniciativa del Departamento de Filología Inglesa de la Universidad concebida por su catedrático, Jesús López-Peláez Casellas.

Este congreso tuvo una estructura dividida en dos hileras. Una comprendía paneles y ponencias sobre múltiples y diversos aspectos de cultura popular (o cultura baja, o cultura de masas); la otra consistía en tres conferencias plenarias y varias ponencias acerca de la obra de un artista mayor cuya producción emana de la cultura popular sin ser limitada por ella, o sea Bob Dylan.

Las tres conferencias plenarias adoptaron un acercamiento holístico a la obra dylaniana, con el énfasis en las intertextualidades literarias y musicales que hacen de su producción un fenómeno culturalmente complejo, recordando que su arte híbrida le valió el Premio Nobel de Literatura en 2016. Los oradores plenarios fueron: Antonio Ballesteros, de la Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Madrid); el prestigioso poeta y novelista Benjamín Prado, fan acérrimo de Dylan que afirma que cada uno de sus libros tiene alguna referencia a Dylan; y el estudioso independiente y crítico dylaniano Christopher Rollason (yo). 

Las intervenciones más breves sobre Dylan abarcaron una gama de facetas más particulares del artista – su vínculo con la publicidad televisiva (Jiri Mesic), su cultivo del insulto comparado con el mismo fenómeno en Shakespeare (Nadia López-Peláez Akalay), y sus posicionamientos antibelicistas (Ishan Alwan Muhsin Al-Sweidi).

Las restantes ponencias exploraron temas de los más variados – estereotipos españoles en comedias televisivas británicas (José Ruiz Mas), las memorias de Patti Smith, diva de la poesía rock (Pilar Sánchez Calle), franquicias de televisión o cine y doblaje intralingual (Lucas Baeyens), el despertar de la conciencia por medio de diversos géneros musicales (Ana Valverde González), y Batman como ‘American hero’ (Benjamín Carrascal Meneses).

El nivel cualitativo de las contribuciones fue alto, y la atmosfera fue plenamente propicio al debate. Este evento demostró la importancia del rigor intelectual en el estudio de la cultura popular, la cual en nuestros tiempos no es algo que debe ser marginado por el mundo académico. La denominación ‘primer congreso’ lanza una promesa de que habrá más, perspectiva que, con suerte, fructificará siguiendo los pasos de este muy exitoso evento inaugural.

Para dylanitas: Mi conferencia tuvo como título ‘Relationships of ownership: Bob Dylan and his sources’, centrándose en tres canciones de Dylan (‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘With God On Our Side’ and ‘I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine’) y las canciones más antiguas que les subyacen. .