My current research activity on Portuguese literature in general, and José Saramago in particular, has unearthed the existence of a wealth of invaluable research material in the field (and also on Portuguese language matters), which I now share. I am pleased to add that everything listed here is open access and free of charge!


Instituto Camões: Revista ‘Camões’ – on-line collection:


Virtually the complete works, at: Arquivo Pessoa – Lisboa: Obra Aberta CRL, 2008 –


Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal – a wealth of archive material, to be explored at:

Notably, the original typescript, with corrections, of Saramago’s ‘O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis’:

Fundação José Saramago:

  • Bibliography of works by and on Saramago:

  • Revista digital ‘Blimunda’ – on-line collection:

  • Revista de Estudos Saramaguianos – on-line collection:



and on the 1994 spelling reform:


The compilers of this material, and Portugal’s academic, literary and cultural milieux in general are to be congratulated on making so much useful material available, in user-friendly form and free of charge. A luta continua!





UMC, 2018 – identification: ISLAND 675 893-1- sleevenotes by Patrick Humphries 


Albums of covers of Bob Dylan’s songs come in many shapes and sizes: brand-new versions or historic recordings, genre-specific collections (reggae, blues, gospel), and multi-artist versus single-artist tributes. Over the years, artist-specific volumes have included albums by Odetta, the Hollies, the Byrds, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joan Osborne, and, as recently as this year, Bettye LaVette. Of these, most were fresh recordings, the Byrds’ offering being an exception as consisting of previously released material.


The new compilation credited to ‘Fairport Convention & Friends’ is a hybrid affair including both standard/well-known studio material and rarities (live performances, outtakes, radio recordings): the tracks in the second category, though all previously released at some point or other, have not in general been widely diffused. The ‘& Friends’ billing suggests that this simultaneously is and is not a Fairport Convention album, reflecting the complex history of what is generally considered the UK’s greatest ever folk-rock band. Fairport have a long and chequered CV, extending from their foundation in 1967 right up to the present day, marked by innumerable personnel changes, entries, exits, re-entries and reunions (today’s Fairport membership includes one founder member, Simon Nicol, but is rather far removed from the group’s classic lineups). Of the roll-call of ex-Fairporters, the two most celebrated are songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson, still going strong and honoured in 2011 with an OBE (Order of the British Empire), and the wonderful female vocalist Sandy Denny, who died tragically young in 1978. The ‘friends’ rubric in the title reflects the fact that there are recordings included that are credited not to Fairport, but (‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’) to Sandy Denny as solo performer, or (‘Too Much of Nothing’) to the short-lived but impressive Fairport offshoot band Fotheringay. Apart from Denny and Thompson, the vocal performers featured include Fairport’s first female vocalist, Sandy’s predecessor Judy Dyble, Ian (later Iain) Matthews, who left Fairport early but went on to have a hit with his group Matthews Southern Comfort with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, and Australian-born Trevor Lucas, who fronted Fotheringay and became Sandy’s husband. The tracks selected are all from Fairport’s early and middle periods, nothing later than 1977 being included, despite the band’s continued existence since: indeed, everything was recorded within Sandy Denny’s lifetime.

Fairport were from the beginning great admirers and signal promoters of the songwriting of Bob Dylan. The sleevenotes by long-standing Fairport chronicler Patrick Humphries informatively chart how what he calls Dylan’s ‘powerful  all-pervasive influence’ was lived out in the music of the UK’s premier folk-rock group. The album consists of 17 tracks, of which 13 can unqualifiedly be called Bob Dylan compositions. Of the others, ‘Jack o’Diamonds’ (from the album ‘Fairport Convention’, 1968) consists of extracts from a poem by Dylan featured on the rear sleeve of his ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’ album, set to music by one Ben Carruthers; ‘Days of ’49” (live performance) is a song from the folk tradition covered by Dylan on ‘Self Portrait’; ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ (hard-to-find studio track) is a song by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn but with input from Dylan in the chorus; and ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’ (from the album ‘Unhalfbricking’, 1969, and as a single Fairport’s one and only UK chart hit, peaking at No 21) is Dylan’s ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ transmuted into a pastiche cajun number sung in improvised French. The above songs are all credited to Fairport, with Trevor Lucas taking lead vocal on ‘Days of ’49’, Ian Matthews on ‘Jack o’Diamonds’ and Sandy on the other two.

The 13 pukka Dylan songs (where no vocalist is specified the vocals are a collective effort) are:

Credited to Fairport: ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ (radio session; the only track featuring Judy Dyble), ‘Dear Landlord’ (outtake from the ‘Unhalfbricking’ sessions; Sandy on vocals), ‘Open the Door Richard’ (radio), ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ (album track from ‘What We Did on Our Holidays’, 1969) and ‘Percy’s Song’ (radio; both Sandy on vocals),’George  Jackson’ (live; Trevor on vocals), ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ and ‘Down in the Flood’ (both live with Sandy on vocals), ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (live; Trevor on vocals), ‘Million Dollar Bash’ (album track from ‘Unhalfbricking’), and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ (live; Sandy on vocals).

Credited to Sandy Denny: ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ (pre-Fairport solo recording).

Credited to Fotheringay: ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (track from the album ‘Fotheringay’, 1969; Trevor on vocals).

Fairport early acquired a reputation for covering material from the more obscure crannies of the Dylan œuvre, and this is reflected in the compilation’s song selection. As might be expected, the ‘Basement Tapes’ songs are particularly well represented (with ‘Down in the Flood’, ‘Million Dollar Bash’, ‘Open the Door Richard’ and ‘Too Much of Nothing’), Fairport having been bitten like so many others by the 1967 acetate bug (they never, though, recorded ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, albeit the title ‘A Tree With Roots’ comes from that basement song!). Apart from the basement material, ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’, ‘Percy’s Song’ and ‘I’ll Keep With Mine’ were all unreleased by Dylan at the time of recording.

There are omissions: ‘Open the Door Richard’ was also done by a later Fairport Convention incarnation on their 1989 studio album ‘Red and Gold’; Richard and Linda Thompson also covered ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ and Ian Matthews did ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ (both on hard-to-find releases); the GPs, a one-off group mainly of ex-Fairporters fronted by Richard Thompson, did ‘Going, Going, Gone’; and – probably the most significant omission – in 1982 a reunited incarnation of Fairport, again including Richard Thompson, included a version of ‘Country Pie’ on their live album ‘Moat on the Ledge’.

If I have a cavil about the selection, it is over three songs. The version found here of ‘Percy’s Song’ is not that from the landmark album ‘Unhalfbricking’, but a radio offering (and was earlier released on ‘Heyday’, a 1987 collection of radio sessions). Similarly, the versions included of ‘Down in the Flood’ and ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’, though fronted by Sandy, are live tracks and not those to be found on her respective studio solo albums ‘The North Star Grassman and the Ravens’ (1971) and ‘Sandy’ (1972). I would suggest that the standard studio versions of these three songs, apart from being of very high quality and in no way needing substitution, are of greater historical interest. It would have been better either to use those versions, or to expand the album into a compilation with variants: indeed, between variants and omitted items there would have been enough material for a double CD!

Quibbles apart, what matters most is the enjoyability and listenability of the material chosen. The overall musical and vocal quality is, as should be expected from Fairport Convention, extremely high. Perhaps not all of the ‘new’ tracks are fully up to standard: ‘Dear Landlord’ sounds unfinished, too much the outtake which it is; ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ comes over as a bit thin (and Judy Dyble was never the best vocalist) and is over-shortened (only two stanzas out of five plus chorus). Meanwhile the great majority of Sandy’s vocals are impeccable – her solo ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ is stunning, her performance on ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ is operatic, and ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ find her deep inside song and emotions. Trevor Lucas’ forceful vocals also impress, notably on ‘Days of ’49’ and ‘Too Much of Nothing’ – though in the choruses to the latter he uses the lyric variant ‘Say hello to Marian’ (instead of ‘Say hello to Vivian’), which Dylan had explicitly condemned when Peter, Paul and Mary covered the song.

This album was long overdue, and is a remarkable record of the creative interaction between British folk-rock’s finest ensemble and the songwriting genius of Bob Dylan. The master’s songs are interpreted, cherished and transformed by the likes of Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Trevor Lucas, maximum exponents of their genre at the height of their powers. Fairport’s tree has set down deep roots indeed, and this excellent compilation of vintage recordings more than merits a place in any Dylan acolyte’s collection.

TRACK LISTING AND SOURCES (my grateful thanks to Antonius Bohnen for supplying this):

01-Si Tu Dois Partir [f You Gotta Go, Go Now] (2:20) [Unhalfbricking, 1969]; 02-Jack O’Diamonds (3:30) [Fairport Convention, 1968]; 03-Lay Down Your Weary Tune (3:38) [Fairport UnConventional – BBC Session 1967, 2002]; 04-Dear Landlord (4:05) [Ashley Hutchings The Guv’nor Vol. 1 – 1969, 1994]; 05-Open The Door, Richard (3:05) [Live at the BBC – 1970, 2007]; 06-I’ll Keep It With Mine (5:52) [What We Did On Our Holidays, 1969]; 07-Percy’s Song (5:26) [Heyday – BBC session 1969, 1987]; 08-The Ballad Of Easy Rider (4:55); [Guitar/Vocal (Richard Thompson) – Liege and Lief session outtake 1969, 1988]; 09-It Ain’t Me, Babe (3:42) [Sandy Denny – box set (Sandy Denny), demo 1966, 2010]; 10-George Jackson (3:44) [Fairport album ‘Nine’ – live 1973 bonus-track reissue, 2005]; 11-Tomorrow Is A Long Time (3:56) [Gold Dust- Live At The Royalty (Sandy Denny album), live 1977, 1998]; 12-Days Of ‘9 (6:18) [Come All Ye- The First Ten Years – box set, live 1973, 2017]; 13-Down In The Flood (3:38) [Come All Ye- The First Ten Years [1968-1978] – live 1973, box set, 2017]; 14-All Along The Watchtower (4:23) [Many Ears To Please- Live in Oslo 1975, 2006]; 15-Too Much Of Nothing (3:54) [album ‘Fotheringay’ (Fotheringay), 1970]; 16-Million Dollar Bash (2:55) [Unhalfbricking, 1969]; 17-Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (4:28) [Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” – live 1974, Sandy Denny box set, 1985].

Note added 10 January 2019:

This article has now been published in:  The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 62, Winter 2018, pp. 75-79.





Now published: Journal of the Odisha Association for English Studies, Vol 8.1 (2018)

Now published is the latest edition (Vol. 8, Issue 1) of the Journal of the Odisha Association for English Studies, as always ably edited from Baleswar in India by Santwana Haldar.

The contents include: Francesco Marroni on the Victorian novel; Somdatta Mandal on film representations of Partition; Mira Hafsi and Fewzia Benyelles Bedjaqui on Shashi Deshpande; Shashikanta Mohanty on Gandhi; poems by Jaydeep Sarangi, Mona Dash and Prasanta Kumar Panda; a review article on Dalit writing, also by Jaydeep Sarangi; and a review of a volume of essays by the late academic Mohit K. Ray, by Santwana Haldar.

I have contributed myself to this volume my review of Élisabeth Roudinesco’s life of Freud (pp. 114-116) (see this blog, entry for 2 Sept 2017), and two texts on Bob Dylan – a report on an event in Madrid on the translation of Dylan’s songs into Spanish and Portuguese (pp. 100-101) (again see this blog, entry for 11 June 2017), and a debate with Santwana on the songwriter’s controversial Nobel (pp. 102-103).

It is always a pleasure to collaborate with this well-produced and stimulating journal, and this latest issue promises to be as rich as ever!

‘ACT NATURALLY’: RINGO STARR AND HIS ALL-STARR BAND – live in Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg), 4 July 2018

I had never thought that in my lifetime on this planet I would be able to see, and sing along with, a Beatle live on stage! However, destiny willed that the Rockhal venue in Esch-sur-Alzette, where I live, would be visited, in the year 2018 on the 4th of July, by one of the two surviving members of the Fab Four – by Ringo Starr, now aged 77 (and soon to turn 78). Half a century on, the magic is still there!

Ringo was accompanied by his All Starr Band (forgive the pun), a formation which turned out be a supergroup and, more than that, a conspectus of Anglophone 70s and 80s rock, including former members of British band 10 cc (indeed that group’s frontman, Graeme Gouldman), American group Toto and Australian outfit Men at Work, and Gregg Rolie, onetime member of the classic Latin-rock act Santana.

The atmosphere was vibrant and happy throughout. Ringo’s drumming is not in the forefront these days, but he jumps and dances joyfully on stage and good-naturedly interrogates the audience. His voice comes across as remarkably well preserved: indeed if anything it sounds stronger than in his Beatles days. The musicians, despite their various provenances, gel perfectly and shine both as individual virtuosos and as a team.

The 20 songs of the setlist stretch from the 50s to the 80s. The opening number, Carl Perkins’ ‘Matchbox’, places the show under the sign of rock’n’roll. The various All Starrs take the lead on their onetime groups’ greatest hits. I cannot claim to specially care for Toto’s pomp-rock (‘Rosanna’ and ‘Hold the Line’) or the Men at Work chestnuts ‘Down Under’ and ‘Who Can It Be Now?’, but the 10 cc numbers (the group was huge in the UK in its day), ably recreated with Graeme Gouldman at the helm, are another matter, with ‘I’m Not in Love’, ‘The Things We Do For Love’ and the reggae pastiche ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ coming across as fresh as if they had been created yesterday. The most welcome surprise, at least for me, is served up by the three numbers made famous by Santana, ‘Evil Ways’, ‘Black Magic Woman’ and Tito Puente’s ‘Oye Como Va’, all superbly interpreted with santanista Gregg Rolie on lead guitar. I would never have expected to hear this Latino material at an ex-Beatle concert!


Ringo represents his post-Beatles solo hits with three numbers, ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, ‘Photograph’ and ‘You’re Sixteen’, Johnny Burnette’s rock’n’roll standard with which the ex-Beatle hit number one in the US chart in 1974. And then of course, there are … the Beatles songs, without which no Ringo Starr concert would make sense.

Out of 20 songs, Ringo includes six Beatles numbers, which seems about right. Also, most featured him on vocal on the original releases – relevance therefore cannot be disputed. Ringo intelligently divides the Beatles material between the lesser-known and the hyperfamous, thus avoiding turning himself into a greatest hits machine. Modesty rules with the numbers from the Beatles catalogue including two cover versions: the Shirelles’ ‘Boys’ from ‘Please Please Me’ and Buck Owens’ ‘Act Naturally’ (from ‘Help!’), and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, a Beatles original but one of the more obscure tracks from the White Album. Better-known is the 1963 single and track from ‘With the Beatles’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’.

At number 9 on the setlist comes a song of which Ringo declares to the audience, ‘If you don’t know this song, you’ve come to the wrong concert!’, and indeed, yes, it’s ‘Yellow Submarine!’ The public goes wild and everyone, myself included, sings along with the celebrated refrain: ‘We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine’, with its perennial childlike innocence.

The very last number generates similar emotions: Ringo plays tribute to ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, the Beatles’ canonical masterpiece on which he contributed lead vocal to the song he now performs (and which the late Joe Cocker in his day turned into a UK number one), ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. Again the audience sings along ecstatically.

This has been a remarkable concert. It will surely stand as one of the best historic memories of many in the audience. Ringo and his musicians have given their all, and we can safely conclude that the ex-Beatle has superbly followed the advice of one of the songs he sang today: for the challenge he has risen to, and to everyone’s gratification, has been to … Act Naturally!

Note: Ringo Starr turned 78 on 7 July 2018, three days after the concert.

THINGS HAVE CHANGED: Review – Stephen Scobie, ‘Always Other Voices: Writings on Bob Dylan in the 21st century’

Review of Stephen Scobie, Always Other Voices: Writings on Bob Dylan in the 21st century, Gateshead (UK): Two Riders, 2018, 215 pp

Since the work of Bob Dylan, in so many ways an archetypal twentieth-century artist, entered the twenty-first century, things have changed – as he reminds us continually in the song thus titled which has in recent times become his permanent concert opener. Today’s perspectives for informed commentary on Dylan now need to include a multitude of developments in the Dylan world since 2001. A non-exclusive list would include: the publication in 2004 of Chronicles, Volume One, with all the reliability issues that memoir raises; the Theme Time Radio Hour programme that ran from 2006 to 2009 with Bob Dylan as DJ; the fixed or near-fixed setlist phenomenon that has characterised recent tours; the evidence of Dylan’s composition methods revealed in the work-in-progress material on various Bootleg Series releases; the debate over the literary borrowings on “Love and Theft” and Modern Times; the enigma of 2009’s surprise Christmas album; the unexpected retro turn to Great American Songbook covers starting with 2015’s Shadows in the Night; and, last but not least, the award in 2016 of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the resultant polemic. All of these issues merit reference in Stephen Scobie’s book.


There has indeed been a pressing need for new studies that would take on board all this and more. A major contribution to filling this gap occurred with the publication in 2017 of Why Bob Dylan Matters (US title; in the UK, Why Dylan Matters) by the Harvard classical scholar Richard Thomas, which took full account of Dylan in the 21st century. Stephen Scobie’s new volume may be seen as playing a parallel role, in terms of Dylanological up-to-dateness and rigour, to that of the excellent Thomas study. I have reviewed Richard Thomas’ volume on this blog (entry: 1 June 2018),  and here note that there is a significant interplay and echoing of viewpoints between it and the book now under review, notably on such live-wire topics as plagiarism/intertextuality, Dylan live today and the Nobel award. At the same time, there is a significant methodological difference between the two works, as Thomas’ book is a continuous narrative while Scobie’s is a collection of (mostly) previously published material ranging for the most part (there are a pair of incursions into earlier times) from 2003 to the present day. The date of 2003 is significant as that year saw the second edition (Alias Bob Dylan Revisited) of Scobie’s book-length study of Dylan, originally published in 1991 as Alias Bob Dylan: incidentally, I reviewed Alias Bob Dylan Revisited at the time, in The Bridge (No. 22, Summer 2005, pp. 82-92).

If anyone is qualified to write on Dylan simultaneously from the viewpoints of academic and literary credentials and enthusiastic fandom, it is Stephen Scobie – on the one hand, a retired professor of English literature at the University of Victoria in Canada and an acclaimed poet and 1980 laureate of the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry; and, on the other, a devotee of Bob Dylan (and Leonard Cohen too) across half a century, who can not only confess: ‘I have been listening to Bob Dylan for over 50 years now, and writing about him, and, whenever possible, going to his concerts’ (p. 205), but also emotively declare: ‘Thank you, Bob, for the soundtrack album of my life’ (p. 8).

The book consists of 20 chapters, all from the period 2003-2018 except for two from 1991 and 1998 respectively. The material comprises an interview with Andrew Muir from 2004, a concert review from 2017, three conference papers, and 15 straight articles. Three of the items are previously unpublished and one had appeared before in German but not in English. For the remainder, the organs of original publication range from conference proceedings to Judas!, Hobo, and The Bridge. Frequent cross-reference to Alias Bob Dylan Revisited makes it clear that in some ways at least, the author sees this volume as a kind of lengthy postscript to that book, albeit differently arranged.

Scobie sees in Dylan’s work – here as in the two editions of Alias – a constant displacement of meaning and the endless creation of multiple selves: ‘All of Dylan’s career, I have repeatedly argued throughout my writings, is saturated with this motif of the double: alias, mask, shadow …’ (p. 41): not in vain does Arthur Rimbaud’s celebrated (and ungrammatical) pronouncement ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is another’) recur across this book’s pages. At the same time, Scobie declares Bob Dylan’s voice to be ‘the greatest expressive instrument of its age’ (p. 121). Thus, the themes of this volume embrace, on the one hand, textuality – the generation of ever-new meanings through the written and sung word – and on the other, performance, be it in concert or on film.

The performance elements include, cinematically, reviews of or articles around three Dylan films – Masked and Anonymous, No Direction Home and I’m Not There – and an extended paper comparing Dylan’s work with the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard; and concert-wise and the last chapter in the book, a vibrant review of Dylan live in Vancouver on 25 July 2017 – in which Scobie endeavours to get to grips with the fixed setlist phenomenon, speculating that ‘perhaps, in advanced age, he finds it easier to remember the same set every night’ (p. 209), and turning the whole thing to Dylan’s advantage by implying that concert and setlist become a work of art, that ‘this concert (like, I assume, many recent shows which I have not seen) [and which would have the same or almost the same setlist] presents in memorable form a summation of where Bob Dylan and his music now stand’ (p. 206).

Dylan’s literary dimension receives the requisite attention with two pieces on Chronicles, Volume One (one a straight review and the other written somewhat later, in the wake of the book’s success), and a detailed (and necessary) essay on the Nobel which powerfully fuses the public and the personal. Scobie notes the particularities of Chronicles: not a conventional linear autobiography; brimful of textual and musical allusions; and brilliantly titled, between the biblical associations and the open-endedness suggested by ‘Volume One’. The two essays taken together form an eminently valuable explorer’s guide to Dylan’s inexhaustible memoir. Chronicles of course raises the more general issue of intertextuality versus plagiarism (as also do the vexed issues of ‘Love and Theft’/Junichi Saga and Modern Times/Henry Timrod and Ovid), and Scobie enters that debate – in the Godard piece and elsewhere – to come down (very much as Richard Thomas’ analysis does) firmly on the side of intertextuality: ‘The borrowing enriches, rather than diminishes, his own text. Plagiarism attempts to steal credit; Dylan (…) [attempts] to incorporate and extend credit’ (p. 191). The theme of inter-authorial relations also inspires an intriguing piece comparing the art of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, from which we learn that if Dylan has covered Cohen (one song only: two performances of ‘Hallelujah’ in 1988), Cohen in all his life never once covered anything by Dylan.

That did not prevent a Cohen soon to leave us from disinterestedly praising Dylan to the skies when he learnt that his rival had won the Nobel – and Scobie duly quotes Cohen’s image of the award as ‘pinning a ribbon on Everest for being the highest mountain’. Scobie aligns himself unequivocally with the pro-Dylan cohort in the ‘did he deserve it?’ debate, commenting on Cohen’s comment: ‘In other words, something so overwhelmingly right and obvious that it brooks no disagreement: it is simply a force of nature’ (p. 203). The article on the Nobel is finely balanced across multiple perspectives. Scobie begins by telling us how he heard the news in the intervals of sleep and woke up to ask himself, ‘Had I dreamed it?’. He goes on to give full credit to the long-standing Dylan-for-Nobel campaign and its protagonists – Allen Ginsberg, Gordon Ball and the Norwegians Reidar Indrebo and Gunnar Lunde – while also delightedly relating his own part in the nomination (a letter of support included in the official package). He goes on to narrate the by now well-known roller-coaster history of Dylan’s response to the award, while not failing to take up the cudgels against those who would claim that song and performed verbal art cannot be literature (‘Any definition of “literature” which excludes both Homer and Shakespeare is, to put it mildly, suspect’ – p. 199).

And then there are the songs. The serious study of Dylan began in 1972 with Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man, in other words with the detailed examination and appreciation of his mastery of language – literary close reading of sung text and text on the page – and it is only fitting that Scobie’s book should also contain passages of such analysis. Not, be it added, of the most obvious material: there is a detailed take on the early (and little-known) ‘Long Time Gone’ and its biblical sources; a careful dissection of a single stanza of ‘Farewell Angelina’; an impressive exploration of the symbolism of the door in three songs, ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ and ‘Forgetful Heart’; and a probing account of ‘Scarlet Town’, considered by Scobie the best song on Tempest, which offers a valuable starting-point for the still-absent full analysis of what remains Dylan’s most recent album of originals (alas dismissed out of hand, for reasons never clarified, by someone as qualified to do it as Michael Gray …). Finally, and on a more light-hearted note, the volume includes the only serious review I have seen of Dylan’s holiday album ‘Christmas in the Heart’, an album no doubt seen as infinitely forgettable by most but which does not lack its merits (and in some ways, we can now see, prefigures the ‘Sinatra albums’). It is certainly interesting to note that, in a link which Richard Thomas curiously does not make, Scobie should pause over Dylan singing in Latin on the carol ‘Adeste Fideles’ (‘O Come All Ye Faithful’), and make the connection with his youthful membership of Hibbing High School’s Latin Club (p. 147).

Walt Whitman wrote of himself: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’. Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra, ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety’. Stephen Scobie’s new book pays homage to the tentacular reach of Bob Dylan’s artistic genius. What might appear eclectically diverse is in reality a tribute to the multitudinous nature of Bob Dylan’s world, and his admirers may receive Always Other Voices as a more than valid follow-up to Stephen Scobie’s two Alias books, and a multifaceted testimony to the infinite variety of Bob Dylan in the twenty-first century.

July 2018 –

Note added 14 August 2018: 

This review has now been published in ‘The Bridge’ (Gateshead, UK), No 61, Summer 2018, pp. 104-108.

GREEN PASTURES AND ANCIENT FOOTPRINTS: Review of Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters

Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters
London: William Collins, 2017, ISBN 978-0-00-824549-8, vi + 358 pp.

Back in 1962 on his very first album, Bob Dylan spoke of ‘the green pastures of Harvard University’ (it was there, he says, that he met folksinger Eric Von Schmidt, who introduced him to the song ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’). Across the endlessly a-changing times, writers and critics have produced no lack of rigorous and serious studies focusing on Dylan’s songwriting and poetic achievement: among the best are the successive editions of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man and Stephen Scobie’s Alias Bob Dylan, but neither has advanced beyond, respectively, their third and second avatar (Gray 2000, Scobie 2004). Much water has flowed under the Dylan bridge in recent years, but there has been a dearth of updated, textually oriented critical work that would take due account of more recent developments. That gap is now filled, by this excellent and wide-ranging volume signed by Richard F. Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at, appropriately, Harvard.

Apart from his teaching and research in ancient Greco-Roman literature, Richard Thomas also teaches, every four years and also at Harvard, a course for freshers on … Bob Dylan. He believes the singer-songwriter is ‘the genius of my lifetime in his artistic use of the English language’ (15), and shows in this book an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dylan’s work. In recent years – let us say since the late 1990s/early 2000s – Dylan’s followers have had the task of assimilating a whole artillery of new developments: ‘all that and more and then some’, to quote Dylan from 2001, indeed! This includes: the publication in 2004 of Chronicles, Volume One, with all the reliability issues that memoir raises; the Theme Time Radio Hour programme that ran from 2006 to 2009 with Bob Dylan as DJ; the fixed (or all but fixed) setlist phenomenon that has characterised recent tours; the evidence of Dylan’s composition methods revealed in the work-in-progress material on various Bootleg Series releases, and notably for 1965-1966 on the Cutting Edge set; the debate over the literary borrowings on “Love and Theft” and Modern Times; the creation in 2016 of the Bob Dylan archive at the University of Tulsa; the variorum volume of the lyrics prepared by Christopher Ricks in 2014; the unexpected retro turn to Great American Songbook covers starting with 2015’s Shadows in the Night; and, last but not least, the award in 2016 of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the resultant polemic. There was indeed a pressing need for a new study that would take on board all this, and Richard Thomas has risen to the challenge. His study ranges across Dylan’s career from the first album to 2017’s Triplicate, and includes discussion, to a greater or lesser extent, of each and every one of the ‘new’ Dylan facets I have enumerated.

Priority goes to the textual dimension – Dylan’s songs as sung poetry, as words on the page but also words in performance – as is only fitting for one now a Nobel laureate. In that framework, it makes sense that the author, given his academic interests, should lay primary stress on Dylan’s links with the classical Greco-Roman authors, though other literary connections are not ignored (the Bible, Shakespeare, the Anglo-Scottish ballads, and, in the 21st century, Dylan’s controversial use of the till then obscure Junichi Saga, Japanese writer, and Henry Timrod, Confederate poet). Thomas has, rightly, little time for the plagiarism argument, placing his bets on intertextuality (and reminding us that Virgil too borrowed from Homer). As he puts it, ‘plagiarism is about passing off as your own what belongs to others’, while ‘intertextuality [enriches] a work precisely because when the reader or listener notices the layered text and recognises what the artist is reusing, that recognition activates the content of the stolen object, thereby deepening meaning in the new text’ (131-132). There is also a fascinating discussion of the sequence in Chronicles where Dylan inventorises the library, real or imaginary, of the New York apartment of his acquaintances Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel – a couple who ‘some readers and reviewers believe are fictional’ (101). In a task which needed doing, Thomas dissects this library in all its Borgesian complexity, clarifying which books actually exist and which (like, say, the ‘lectures and letters’ attributed by Dylan to the historian Tacitus) are non-existent titles, even if ascribed to real authors (110-116).

The Dylan songs examined in detail are for the most part either early-period (intertextuality and sources for ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ or ‘Masters of War’) or from the last two decades, i.e. from 1997’s Time out of Mind on (close readings of the likes of ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ or ‘Early Roman Kings’). There is little on the intervening period, Blood on the Tracks apart – thus, nothing or virtually nothing on the basement tapes, or the religious period, or the underrated gem that is Oh Mercy. However, others have written up that material – as in, for instance, Michael Gray’s masterly analyses in Song and Dance Man III of mid-period songs like ‘Dignity’ or ‘Caribbean Wind’ – and what Thomas concentrates on does have the advantage of broadly corresponding period-wise to the contents of Dylan’s more recent setlists.

The core of this book consists of the material assembled by the classical scholar on Dylan’s debt to the Greco-Roman world, and the evidence marshalled is indeed impressive. Notably and for Dylan’s later work, Thomas’ textual comparisons take in Virgil (‘Lonesome Day Blues’ from “Love and Theft”, where the tenth stanza is a clear rewrite of lines from Book VI of the Aeneid (193-195)), Ovid (whose poems of exile, via multiple textual echoes, lie behind two songs from Modern Times, ‘Ain’t Talkin” and ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ (240-245)), and Homer, proven as present in various songs from Tempest, notably ‘Tin Angel’ (258-259). For these and other allusions, the author is also to be congratulated on identifying the translations Dylan has read (Robert Fagles for Homer, Peter Green for Ovid), thus pointing up the role of translation, alas often rendered invisible, in the intertextual process.

Going back in time, Thomas also registers Dylan’s interest in things Roman from earlier in his career, as in the 1971 song ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which begins: ‘Oh, the streets of Rome / Are filled with rubble / Ancient footprints are everywhere’. Thomas meanwhile admits that Dylan’s ‘early Roman kings’ have nothing to do with Rome and are an eminently American gang from the Bronx. His analysis misses some of Dylan’s earlier classical references – the song titles ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ and ‘Open the Door, Homer’, the mention of Nero in ‘Desolation Row’ – and for the later work, omits the possible Homeric allusions in the “Love and Theft” song ‘Honest With Me’, in which the song’s ‘stark naked’ protagonist ‘came ashore in the dead of the night’, as if the shipwrecked Odysseus arriving among the Phaeacians. Even so, such absent references also serve to prove the author’s general point and further underscore the presence of the classical in Dylan’s songwriting.

The book’s final chapter is devoted to the story of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, and may be considered a highly useful, even definitive, account of the vicissitudes of that award. Thomas chronicles such key aspects as: the initial nomination back in 1996 by US academic Gordon Ball; Patti Smith’s Stockholm performance, deputising for Dylan, of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’; the address by Nobel grandee Horace Engdahl, in which he recalled that ‘in a distant past, all poetry was sung’ (295); and Dylan’s own eleventh-hour Nobel lecture, in which he gloriously confirms the Harvard professor’s argument by naming and evoking Homer’s Odyssey as one of his three key books of all time.

For Richard Thomas, the 2016 award has finally validated the work of decades by Dylan scholars, himself included, striving, against the prejudice attaching to ‘popular’ genres, to secure official recognition for Bob Dylan’s work as ‘literature of the highest order’ (295). The successful outcome of that process is wholly to be welcomed, and this book, with its argument stretching across time between the Greco-Roman classics and our own day, is both a vital work of Dylanological reference and an eminently valuable tribute to the timeless creative energy of Bob Dylan.

Note: Why Dylan Matters is the UK title. The US version (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), is entitled Why Bob Dylan Matters.


Monet and Architecture at London’s National Gallery

Between 9 April and 29 July 2018, the National Gallery in London is hosting an exhibition which will be special for all lovers of French Impressionism, devoted to ‘Monet and Architecture’. No less than 77 canvasses are assembled, ranging from celebrated works from the gallery’s own holdings to rarely viewed paintings loaned from private collections.

The leitmotif is, as the title suggests, architecture, and the paintings’ locations vary from coastal scenes integrating humanity and nature to the fully-fledged modernity of Paris and London. Present too are Monet’s impressions of Amsterdam, Venice and Rouen cathedral, and his well-known ‘series’ orientation is not neglected. The scenes are captured with light effects corresponding to the different seasons, from glowing summer to the depths of winter.

The catalogue, compiled  by Richard Thomson, includes all  the paintings from the exhibition and more. It is rare indeed to be able to view so many of Claude Monet’s works at a single sitting, and the National Gallery is to be congratulated on this enterprise.