This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.
Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.
This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.
But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.
Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.
How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)
Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.
What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.
“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).
A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”
Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”
That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.
Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)
As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.
What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.
Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.
The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.
Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.
I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.
Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.
I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.
Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.
Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.
Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”
The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.
Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.
Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.
Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.
And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.
Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.
Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.
The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.
The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.
Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.
Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.
More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.
Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.
Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.
It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.