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.

SECOND ISSUE OF NEW JOURNAL ‘DYLAN REVIEW’

Now out is the second issue (Vol. 1, No 2, Winter 2019) of the new, academic-oriented on-line journal devoted to the work of Bob Dylan, the Dylan Review (I logged the first issue in an earlier post on this blog dated 19 July 2019).

The new issue includes: an interview with the celebrated critic and Dylanite Christopher Ricks (with focus on the variorum edition of the lyrics masterminded by him); a long article by Neil Corcoran combining biographical and textual scholarship, linking Suze Rotolo’s autobiography and the song texts of Boots of Spanish Leather and Ballad in Plain D; an informative review by William Luhr of Martin Scorsese’s film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story; and reviews of three new books on Dylan.

The books reviewed are (by Stuart Hampton-Reeves) Andrew Muir’s The True Performing of it: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare; (by Robert Reginio) Timothy Hampton’s Bob Dylan‘s Poetics: How the Songs Work; and (by myself) the edited collection Polyvocal Bob Dylan.

Full entry for my review: Nduka Otiono and Josh Tosh, eds., “Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature”, Dylan Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter 2019, pp. 2-8.

The full text of the issue is available on-line at:

https://www.dylanreview.org/contents

TALES OF LEONARD THE BARD – LEONARD COHEN: POSTHUMOUS ALBUM AND CONFERENCE

Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter, poet, novelist and cultural icon, exited the material world on 7 November 2016, at the age of 82. However, the famous Canadian’s spirit is still very much with us, as now appears with the release of the posthumous album Thanks For The Dance (2019), which brings the tally of Cohen studio albums up to 15 and follows on seamlessly from the last album released in his lifetime, the acclaimed You Want It Darker from 2016.

The circumstances of the new album’s making are chronicled on the site of the Leonard Cohen Chair (Cátedra Leonard Cohen), the permanent research unit founded in 2011 at the University of Oviedo, in the region of Asturias in northern Spain. We learn how Leonard Cohen worked with his son Adam on this final album knowing he would almost certainly not live to see it released, at:

https://www.unioviedo.es/leonardcohen/index.php/2019/07/02/articulos-y-noticias/

(with a collection of links in Spanish and English),

The final product consists of nine songs, eight with words by Cohen père and music by Cohen fils and one (the title track) composed by Leonard jointly with long-term associate Anjani Thomas. The musical arrangements on this album are particularly haunting, with instrumentation of an ancient timbre – including jew’s harp, ukelele, mandolin and, performed by virtuoso Javier Mas, the Spanish lute of Arabo-Andalusian origins – as well as background vocals from an array of collaborators including  Cohen stalwart Jennifer Warnes. The sound recalls the timelessly universal musical effects to be found on two of Cohen’s finest albums, Recent Songs from 1979 and 1984’s Various Positions. The lyrics are classic Cohen, ambivalent glimpses into the dark night of the soul traversed by flashes of redemption. Enigmatic compositions like Happens to the Heart or The Night of Santiago will long keep Cohen exegetes at work. Light and darkness, destruction and creation, play out their patterns in these songs: in the tellingly titled It’s Torn, the bard declaims: ‘Come gather the pieces / All scattered and lost / The lie in what’s holy / The light in what’s not’.

Now, hard on the heels of the new album comes news of a conference, to be organised by the Oviedo centre from 15 to 17 April 2020, under the banner: ‘Oppressed by the Figures of Beauty:  International Conference on Leonard Cohen and on the Work of Singer-Songwriters’ [Oprimidos por las formas de la belleza: Congreso Internacional sobre Leonard Cohen y La Canción de Autor] (the  quotation is from Cohen’s song of 1974, Chelsea Hotel No 2). Details are at:

https://www.unioviedo.es/leonardcohen/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/CFP-Congreso-sobre-Leonard-Cohen-y-la-canción-de-autor.-ENGLISH.pdf and

https://www.unioviedo.es/leonardcohen/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/CFP-Congreso-sobre-Leonard-Cohen-y-la-canción-de-autor.-Oprimidos-por-las-formas-de-la-belleza.-ESPAÑOL.pdf

This international event, which will be conducted in English and Spanish, promises to bring appreciation of Leonard Cohen’s legacy to new heights, as the healing power of poetry and music continues to manifest in the voice of the composer of Hallelujah, the singer gifted with a golden voice who in that song of 1984 famously affirmed: ‘I’ll stand before the lord of song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah’. With a remarkable new album and a major Cohen event looming, that hallelujah still resounds beyond the grave.

 

**

Note added 30 July 2020:

The Oviedo conference was unfortunately cancelled, for reasons it would be superfluous to explain. Yet Cohen’s hallelujah still reverberates, the fire of song still burns, and the event may yet finally happen ..

 

REVIEW OF BOB DYLAN, THE BOOTLEG SERIES Vol. 15, TRAVELIN’ THRU

Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series reaches its Volume 15 with the release of a collection of essential material from the period 1967-1969, featuring Johnny Cash on a majority of the tracks and chronicling the first part of Bob Dylan’s ’country period’ (the second part was earlier visited by Volume 10 – Another Self Portrait, released in 2013). Unlike some of its predecessors, Volume 15 is a relatively brief affair, clocking in at 3 CDs (or vinyls) and with no variants – so this time round, no deluxe editions or limited-issue discs! The set comes with a 54-page booklet with full track listings and appreciations by Ben Rollins, Rosanne Cash and Colin Escott. It also has the seal of approval of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa.

                             

The three discs muster a total of 50 tracks, of which two are brief spoken-word interludes, leaving 48 of music, of which 19 are credited to Bob Dylan alone, 25 to Dylan and Cash and the remaining 4 to Dylan and Earl Scruggs. Three tracks have had prior release (one, an alternate version of ‘Lay Lady Lay’, only very limited); the remaining 45 are making their official debut. There are two ‘new’ Bob Dylan originals, ‘Western Road’ and (with Cash) ‘Wanted Man’, and a goodly number of cover versions (Dylan/Cash or Dylan alone) of folk or other standards and classic Cash compositions, enriching the ever-growing roster of songs officially covered by Bob Dylan.

The set consists of: 7 outtakes from the John Wesley Harding sessions (1967, Dylan); 8 outtakes from the Nashville Skyline sessions (1969, Dylan); 25 tracks from the 1969 Dylan/Cash sessions in Nashville (one of them ‘Studio chatter’ from Cash); 3 tracks from the Johnny Cash TV show of 7 June 1969  (2 Dylan / 1 Dylan/Cash); 2 outtakes from the Self Portrait sessions (1969, Dylan); and 5 tracks with Earl Scruggs (one an interview with Scruggs), recorded at a New York private house in May 1970 (hence a shade outside the set’s advertised timeframe). There is a slight overlap with Another Self Portrait in the form of an outtake of ‘I Threw It All Away’ which appeared on that album, while the two Self Portrait outtakes, though not on that collection, could of course have featured there. Notably, for the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline sessions there is only one version of each featured song; this set thus diverges from the completist approach that characterised the mastodontic The Bootleg Series Volume 11 (The Cutting Edge) or the recent (non-Bootleg Series) 14-disc Rolling Thunder Review retrospective. The contents of the set are inevitably not all of the same quality, but everything included is, at the least, interesting and, at best, superb.

John Wesley Harding is one of Bob Dylan’s very greatest albums, and its metaphysical profundities need no introduction. Its successor Nashville Skyline, if less ambitious, has stood the test of time and is regarded as a country-rock classic – indeed, it could be called a great Hank Williams album not by Hank Williams. The outtakes for the two that surface here will have been eagerly awaited by many, but do not in fact add a vast amount to the songs. For John Wesley Harding, there are some tempo changes – ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ is taken slower than on the album, ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ faster, and while there are a scattering of minor lyric variations, there is really only one to write home about, namely on ‘I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine’. The last verse appears as ‘Oh I awoke in anger, without a place to stand or hide’ – as opposed to ‘so alone and terrified’ on the album version, and also to ‘so alone and mystified’, a lyric change which recently emerged on the Rolling Thunder compilation. Of the three variants, I suggest that ‘alone and terrified’ remains the best, connecting with the motif of fear that occurs elsewhere in the album. Only seven of John Wesley Harding’s 12 tracks are represented: there is no work-in-progress to illuminate the enigmatic ‘Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, while according to Colin Escott’s notes no alternate versions exist of the two closing songs that form a bridge to Nashville Skyline, ‘Down Along the Cove’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. For Nashville Skyline, the set offers variants of almost all that album’s tracks, but again the musical or lyrical variants are not major. The one ‘new’ song from the sessions which appears, ‘Western Road’, was left off Nashville Skyline – wisely, as while a competent blues it would not have been a fit with the album’s register.

The Dylan/Cash sessions, laid down for an album that never was, are the set’s centrepiece. Some tracks are frankly best forgotten but others are magnificent. Certain experiments – Dylan singing ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ simultaneously with Cash intoning ‘Understand Your Man’; a pair of Jimmie Rodgers medleys on which neither Cash nor Dylan manages to yodel convincingly – are scarcely listenable. By contrast, Dylan and Cash together offer superb readings of a whole series of Cash evergreens (‘I Still Miss Someone’, ‘Big River’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Ring of Fire’ and more), two unquestionable Dylan classics (‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Girl of the North Country’ – the latter song being of course featured on the released Nashville Skyline), and standards including ‘That’s All Right, Mama’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’ and a medley of ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘This Train Is Bound for Glory’. Of particular interest are ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘I Walk the Line’: the former, which appears twice on this set, would later feature in a version by Dylan on the soundtrack of the 1996 film Feeling Minnesota, while the latter is invoked by Dylan in Chronicles, Volume One as an inspiration for his own masterpiece of 1989, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. The two also duet on the Dylan composition ‘Wanted Man’, marking the official debut in a version (co-)performed by Dylan himself of the song which Cash would later feature on his classic live album Johnny Cash At San Quentin. However, this version is incomplete and, while it starts strongly, fades away into confusion and is best considered a rehearsal, with Cash’s San Quentin performance remaining the definitive version of this slice-of-Americana song.

Of the remaining, more heterogeneous tracks, by far the best are the two Self Portrait outtakes, both featuring Cash classics. Dylan excels himself vocally on both ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, and musically the two tracks are on a level with the best of Nashville Skyline: they would indeed have been enrichments for Self Portrait. The three live tracks from the Johnny Cash Show also sound fine, with Dylan’s ‘Living the Blues’ anticipating Self Portrait. The Dylan/Earl Scruggs material, however, sounds a shade throwaway, perhaps reflecting the private-house venue: if the traditional ‘East Virginia Blues’ manages to convince,, the throwback to the Free-Wheelin’ album, ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’, comes over as sketchy. The 50 tracks come to an end with a (previously released) version by Dylan and Scruggs of Dylan’s instrumental ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’ – a tribute to both the city of Nashville and to the album for which the composition was written, and thus, the listener may feel, a satisfying conclusion to a rich and diverse listening experience.

**

BOB DYLAN, The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 1967-1969, TRAVELIN’ THRU (featuring Johnny Cash), Columbia Records 2019, 3 CDs / vinyls

**

Note added 10 January 2020:

This review has been published in print form in Dylan zine The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 64, Winter 2019, pp. 99-103.

 

IL DIVO TAKE ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE (LUXEMBOURG) BY STORM / EL GRUPO IL DIVO HECHIZA AL PÚBLICO EN ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE (LUXEMBURGO)

On the night of 12 October 2019, the Rockhal venue in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second city, had the good fortune to host the first-ever performance in the Grand Duchy by Il Divo, the multinational male vocal quartet formed in 2004. Il Divo have been described as a ‘Three Tenors lite’, but, while they perform a comparable crossover act on the musical dividing-line between classical and popular, unlike the Three Tenors they were formed in the first place as a group, rather than being an occasional meeting of three overwhelming personalities. Il Divo’s members hail respectively from Spain, France, Switzerland and the US, and while each certainly has his personality, on stage the four blend effortlessly into a seamless whole.

  

The group’s Luxembourg debut focused especially, though not exclusively, on material from their last two albums – this year’s ‘Timeless’, released to mark their 15th anniversary, and ‘Amor y pasión’, their all-Spanish offering from 2015. As regards the material in Spanish, the set included classics such as ‘Hasta Mi Final’ and ‘Bésame Mucho’, as well as Spanish-language renditions of celebrated Anglophone numbers including ‘Unforgettable’, ‘What a Wonderful World’ (rebaptised ‘Qué Bonito es Vivir’) and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (the last-named, they told us, being the song their live audiences have most appreciated over the years). In English, the evergreen hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ was especially moving, and as final encore the quartet offered a rousing multilingual (English-French-Spanish) version of no less a concert standard than ‘My Way’ (or if you prefer, ‘A Mi Manera’).

Il Divo are expert in interpreting the classics of song ‘a su manera’ – doing it their way and at the same time captivating their followers. This was truly an enchanted evening, and the Grand Duchy will now await Il Divo’s swift return!

**

En la noche del 12 de octubre de 2019, la sala de conciertos ‘Rockhal’ de Esch-sur-Alzette, segunda ciudad de Luxemburgo, tuvo la suerte de organizar la primer actuación en el Gran Ducado de Il Divo, el cuarteto vocal masculino y multinacional formado en 2004. Se ha apellidado a Il Divo como ‘los Tres Tenores lite’, pero aunque constituyen, ellos también, un conjunto tipo ‘crossover’ o híbrido combinando elementos de la música clásica y la popular, a diferencia de los Tres Tenores se formaron en primer lugar como grupo, en vez de crear un encuentro ocasional de tres personalidades dominantes. Los elementos de Il Divo son respectivamente de España, Francia, Suiza y Estados Unidos, y si bien cada uno tiene su personalidad, las cuatro voces se fusionan de manera natural para convertirse en una sola entidad.

El estreno luxemburgués de la formación enfatizó, aunque no de forma exclusiva, temas sacados de sus dos últimos trabajos – el álbum ‘Timeless’, lanzado en este año para conmemorar su décimoquinto aniversario, y ‘Amor y pasión’, disco de 2015 consistiendo únicamente de canciones interpretadas en español. En cuanto al material en castellano, podemos resaltar clásicos como ‘Hasta Mi Final’ y ‘Bésame Mucho’, además de versiones ‘a la española’ de éxitos del mundo anglosajón como ‘Unforgettable’, ‘What a Wonderful World’ (rebautizado ‘Qué Bonito es Vivir’) y, quizá sobretodo, ‘Hallelujah’ de Leonard Cohen (según Il Divo, la canción que sus públicos a través de los años han apreciado más que cualquier otra). En inglés, destaquemos como particularmente conmovedor el inmortal himno ‘Amazing Grace’. Para rematar la noche, el cuarteto nos regaló una versión exuberante y multilingüe (inglés-francés-español) de nada menos que la famosísima ‘My Way’ (o si prefieren, ‘A Mi Manera’).

Los músicos que forman Il Divo son expertos en interpretar los clásicos de la canción ‘a su manera’ – poniendo de su parte y a la vez hechizando a sus seguidores. Esta fue de verdad una noche encantadora, y ahora el Gran Ducado esperará el rápido regreso de Il Divo!

JOSE SARAMAGO’S HERITAGE ONLINE: REVISTA DE ESTUDOS SARAMAGUIANOS (BRAZIL), VOL 10, NO 2

Now on-line is Volume 10, No 2 (August 2019) of the Revista de Estudos Saramaguianos, the Brazilian-based online journal devoted to the study of Portugal’s Nobel-winning writer José Saramago.

The journal’s site is at:

https://estudossaramaguianos.com/

and the current issue can be downloaded at:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PxjdpcUS3avQIGx0Wm7MySP195JP_eXj/view

The new issue includes (all texts in Portuguese) an editors’ introduction and six critical essays, respectively on the novels (to give their English titles) Raised from the Ground, Baltasar and Blimunda (original title: Memorial do Convento; two essays), The Stone Raft and All The Names, and on the dedicated Saramago journal Blimunda.

It also includes – pp. 151-154 and (same url as complete issue):

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PxjdpcUS3avQIGx0Wm7MySP195JP_eXj/view

my review of Ricardo Viel, ‘Um país levantado em alegria (20 anos do Prémio Nobel de Literatura a José Saramago)’,

previously published in English on this blog on 8 February 2019

at: https://rollason.wordpress.com/2019/02/08/review-of-ricardo-viel-um-pais-levantado-em-alegria-20-anos-do-premio-nobel-de-literatura-a-jose-saramago/

The editors are to be congratulated on this excellent and ongoing scholarly endeavour, in favour of José Saramago and Lusophone culture.

‘WITH HIS POINTED SHOES AND HIS BELLS’: Review of: Andrew Muir, ‘The True Performing Of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare’

Review of:

Andrew Muir, The True Performing Of It: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare

Penryn (UK): Red Planet Books, 2019, paperback, 368 pp., ISBN 978-1-9127-3395-8

**

This was a book waiting to be written. With Bob Dylan’s literary credentials burning bright since his 2016 Nobel, and with the man from Minnesota now being increasingly acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of modern times, it is entirely apposite that a study like this should bring Dylan into direct comparison and interaction with another figure considered among the key creators of his time (if not all time), William Shakespeare. The author, Andrew Muir, is more than qualified for the endeavour, having already published on both to the tune of one book on Shakespeare and three on Dylan, the latter including in particular, Razor’s Edge: Bob Dylan and the Never Ending Tour (Helter Skelter Publishing, 2001) and Troubadour: Early and Late Songs of Bob Dylan (Woodstock Publications, 2003).

Muir’s self-defined brief is nothing if not ambitious (the title too – The True Performing Of It – aims high, being a direct quotation from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The volume is, approximately, structured as follows: Dylan and Shakespeare as parallel cultural figures and as performing artists or ‘bards’; ‘Shakespeare in Dylan’ (Shakespearean quotations and references in Dylan’s work); ‘Dylan in Shakespeare’ (use of Dylan’s work in Shakespeare performances’); issues of use of sources, biblical allusions and plagiarism/intertextuality in both; and, finally, an extended compare-and-contrast exercise on The Tempest, Shakespeare’s late-period gem, and the similarly titled Tempest, to date Dylan’s last self-penned album.

The author commences by affirming that ‘Bob Dylan has been regularly compared to Shakespeare for many years’, both for the ‘scope and depth’ of his work and its ‘style and quality’ (5). He also recalls that Dylan said in 1998: ‘Have you ever seen a Shakespeare play? … It’s like the English language at its peak’ (6), and stresses how the son of Duluth, like the Swan of Avon, has enriched the English tongue with numerous unforgettable phrases that, as Muir puts. it, are now ’embedded in our language’ (242). For Muir, both are bards in the sense of a lyric poet who stands as the ‘voice of a people’, be it of a nation or a group (13), with the capacity to  ‘influence the language, and therefore the minds, of their and future generations’ (14). In this context, he takes for both Shakespeare and Dylan the line that both are fundamentally performance artists, with live performance (Shakespeare’s plays on stage, Dylan’s songs in concert) having priority over the published play or the lyrics on the page. Muir thus comes down on the performance side in the ‘poet versus performer’ debate in Dylan studies, while in no moment negating the singer’s immense poetic gifts (he includes a useful account of Dylan’s Nobel and its vicissitudes, bringing to the fore inter alia the enthused reaction of Kazuo Ishiguro, the Anglo-Japanese writer who would prove to be the following year’s laureate (55-63)).

Regarding the Shakespearean presence in Dylan, Muir duly notes a whole series of instances, in both prose and verse. For Dylan’s prose writings, Shakespearean allusions in Tarantula (163) and Chronicles Volume One are credited and there is a useful if non-exhaustive list at the end of Shakespeare references in Dylan’s miscellaneous prose (interviews and speeches), the Nobel lecture included (356-359).

What matters most, however, are the Shakespeare quotations and allusions in the songs. Muir reminds us that Dylan mentions Shakespeare by name on Blonde on Blonde, as a character in ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’ (‘like one of the court jesters from his plays’ (143). He also notes that on Highway 61 Revisited, ‘Desolation Row’ showcases the love-lorn Ophelia from Hamlet with a whole stanza to herself (143-146), though curiously Muir does not mention the appearance in the very same song of a lovestruck Romeo (but with Cinderella rather than Juliet). Properly logged, however, is Romeo’s return – this time alongside Juliet – on “Love and Theft” in ‘Floater (Too Much to Ask)’, as well as the fact that on the same album ‘Po’ Boy’ features the husband and wife protagonists of Othello, the eponymous hero and Desdemona, with their roles reversed (146-147).

Muir also points out how a number of the Basement Tapes songs (‘Too Much of Nothing’, ‘Nothing Was Delivered, ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’), even if not quoting directly, are infused with the themes (anger, filial ingratitude, nothingness) of King Lear (154). As Muir notes, ‘Tears of Rage’ asks: ‘Oh what dear daughter   ‘neath the sun / Could treat a father so / To wait upon him hand and foot / And always tell him no ?’ (157), while ‘Too Much of Nothing’ points back in its title to Lear’s ’Nothing will come of nothing: speak again’ (154). The author also reminds us that, still on King Lear, ‘Handy Dandy’, from Under The Red Sky, echoes in its title a line from that play (indeed, a remarkably Dylanesque Shakespearean line, namely ‘Handy-dandy: which is the justice and which the thief?’) (162).

The above quotations and allusions are picked up and commented on by the author. However, he has not cottoned on to a number of additional, and important, Shakespeare-in-Dylan quotes. In ‘Forgetful Heart’, from Together Through Life, the image of the ‘walking shadow’ comes direct from the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ soliloquy in Macbeth. Shakespeare also strikes twice on the Tell-Tale Signs compilation (The Bootleg Series Vol. 8), in the outtake version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin’’, which returns to Hamlet (and Ophelia) as it evokes ‘the primrose path’ [to hell], and in ‘Can’t Escape From You’, which tellingly quotes the famous aphorism from As You Like It, ‘All the world’s a stage’.

More quotations and more allusions are no doubt waiting to be unearthed; and if Muir has not located every Shakespeare quote in the Dylan canon, he has certainly whetted scholars’ appetite to track down more (he also sensibly rules out some potential connections as far-fetched – as with the phrase ‘twelfth night’ from the title track of Highway 61 Revisited, which, indeed, would not seem to have much to do with Shakespeare’s play of that name (135)).

The theme of Shakespeare-in-Dylan is balanced by that of Dylan-in-Shakespeare, and here Muir, as an avid follower of Shakespeare performances, provides information on theatre and cinema versions of Shakespeare that include Dylan material and may not be widely known among Dylanites. He cites, among others, a production of Hamlet (directed by Robert Icke at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2017) (181-189), which incorporated extracts from numerous Dylan songs, as well as a film version of Cymbeline, directed by Michael Almereyda in 2014, which features Dylan’s song from Empire Burlesque, ‘Dark Eyes’ (178-181). These phenomena reinforce the connection of the two bards and provide further evidence, were it needed, for the universality of Dylan’s work.

On more general matters relevant to both Dylan and  Shakespeare, Muir’s study pays close attention to textual issues of sources and intertextuality – an issue which has of course come to the fore in more recent times with (readers will recall the well-known cases of Junichi Saga, Henry Timrod and Ovid).  On the vexed subject of ‘intertextuality versus plagiarism’ in Dylan’s work (243-266), our author comes down firmly on the side of the former (i.e. Dylan does not steal, he transforms), thus aligning himself with the likes of Richard Thomas and Stephen Scobie rather than taking the Joni Mitchell ‘thieving’ line. Indeed, Muir compares Dylan’s creative incorporation of source material with Shakespeare’s similar practice, quoting at length the famous speech ‘The barge she sat in’ from Antony and Cleopatra and its source in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (243-244). Here Muir shows how Shakespeare enriches and transforms the source material even as he incorporates it (as, be it added, Dylan does with Ovid in the Modern Times version of ‘Ain’t Talkin”).

With regard to the specific nature of Shakespeare’s and Dylan’s sources, Muir stresses how both have in common the large-scale mining of the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics.  Dylan’s use of biblical material – not only in his ‘Christian period’ but right across his career before and since – has received much attention, and comparing it with Shakespeare’s can only help deepen the study of this vital aspect of the Dylan œuvre. Regarding the Greco-Roman classics, Muir amply shows – especially in his chapter comparing Tempest and The Tempest, and acknowledging and drawing on the recent groundbreaking work of Richard Thomas in this field -– how these foundational texts of Western culture have left their traces in the more recent Dylan, not only in the by now well-worn case of Ovid, but also for Homer, Virgil and more – Homer, for example, being echoed in a number of songs on Tempest (305).

Andrew Muir’s volume ends with him reiterating the importance of ‘tracing the parallels between these two giants of performing and literary arts’ (354) and recalling with a devotee’s force how ‘Shakespeare and Dylan have been central to my adult life’ (362). All in all, it offers a highly convincing case, spelt out with the requisite textual detail, for the importance and fertility of the Dylan-Shakespeare connection on both causal (source-oriented) and qualitative (comparative) grounds. Where the book does to a certain extent fall down is concerning presentation. The font, it has to be said, is small, and the index is a shade chaotic and, above all, incomplete. Both those cavils would of course be answered should an electronic version be made available. For the moment, Andrew Muir deserves to be congratulated on marshalling so much persuasive evidence in defence of linking the work of the two vital bards, in such a way as to disarm the sceptics and mark a further step forward in the constantly expanding world of Dylan studies.

PALACE OF MAFRA (PORTUGAL), IMMORTALISED BY JOSÉ SARAMAGO, JOINS UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE LIST

Admirers of the writings of Portugal’s Nobel laureate José Saramago should be delighted to learn that the Palace of Mafra, built between 1717 and 1750 under King João V, is among the latest additions to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Its construction was the prime subject of Saramago’s historical novel of 1982, ‘Memorial do Convento’ (in English, ‘Baltasar and Blimunda’), which has sold over a million copies in Portugal and has been translated into numerous languages. Located near Lisbon, the complex consists of a royal palace, a basilica, a convent and a garden. Its consecration by UNESCO (dated 7 July 2019) in parallel with that of another Portuguese site, the Basílica do Bom Jesús do Monte near Braga, brings Portugal’s tally of World Heritage sites to 17.

See UNESCO’s official site, at (for the news):

https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/2005/ and (description of the complex):

https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1573/

See also article on this blog of 22 November 2007: ‘THE CONVENT OF MAFRA AND 25 YEARS OF JOSÉ SARAMAGO’s “MEMORIAL DO CONVENTO”’

CULTURE OF PLANTS AND VALUES: FLORAL DISPLAY IN ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE (LUXEMBOURG)

 

Each summer, the town of Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg), where I live, hosts a special floral garden in its main square, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. This year`s garden, baptised ‘Culture.S’, combines the natural language of plants with the human language of ethical concepts.

The title also plays on the double meaning of culture, as cultivation of plants and of values. Five pillars, each in the shape of a book, make up the display, integrated with the plant kingdom and proclaiming respectively (in French) the virtues of Bienveillance, Liberté, Solidarité, Tolérance and Unité (Benevolence, Liberty, Solidarity, Tolerance and Unity). The concept is the work of Luxembourg artist Florence Hoffmann, and apart from commemorating summer 2019, is also part of the run-up to the year 2022, when Esch-sur-Alzette will be joint European Capital of Culture. An artistic creation like this, simple yet profound, augurs well indeed for 2022!‘profound, augurs well indeed for 2022!