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The World of Bob Dylan edited by Sean Latham

This book describes itself as the “first published project to emerge from the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa”. This institute is linked to the Bob Dylan archive which assembles over 100,000 items including audio and video recordings, essays, poems, photographs, correspondence and more. The archive has Dylan’s support and he described it as “a great honour.” The purpose of the archive is both public display and academic research. Sean Latham, editor of this title, is director of the institute as well as a professor of English at the adjacent University.

Latham says the purpose of the book is to get different perspectives on “understanding the depth, complexity and legacy of Dylan’s music, while at the same time setting out an entirely new agenda for writing, research and invention.” That second goal sounds ambitious and I am not sure exactly what Latham means, except insofar as academic writing about pop music still seems something of a novelty. There is always that question: are we taking all this too seriously? Those of who have grown up with Dylan’s work are too close to it to know; we may in fact be at some kind of “peak Dylan” as the adolescents of the sixties and seventies are now the professors and writers – and yes, there are plenty of professors here, seventeen if I counted them right, along with a journalist or two, and Dylan fan and author Andrew Muir. The Dylan of Ballad of a Thin Man didn’t have much time for professors, but hey, the times they are a changin’.

There are 27 essays here, with five sections: biography, the musical genres Dylan drew on, Dylan’s work and its place in culture, political contexts, and finally Dylan’s legacy. The title, by no coincidence, is the same as that of a 4-day symposium that took place at the end of May 2019, and some of the material, such as the chapter by Griel Marcus, is drawn directly from that event.

We kick off with a rather selective chronology, then Andrew Muir takes us through the biographies: Scaduto, Shelton, Spitz, Heylin (“it so far outclasses its predecessors that it might as well be the first”), Sounes, and mention of some others. Enjoyed this. Then we get Latham on Dylan’s songwriting, a challenging topic, and a piece that to me does not quite capture its subject. Then comes a chapter on Dylan’s singles, or ten of them: I couldn’t make sense of this one, why include Tangled up in Blue, which is hardly single material even though it was a (rather unsuccessful) one, but not Lay Lady Lay or Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door which work well as singles? And that is it for Part 1.

Part 2 on genres opens with an essay on folk music by Ronald D Cohen, then Griel Marcus on the Blues, based on his lecture. The Marcus piece is a bit odd in print, not least because it says “Bob Dylan’s Lovesick Bournemouth October 1 1997 plays.” There is always YouTube.

The third section is the best. Here we get Raphael Falco on Dylan’s visual arts; interesting because Falco is a professor of English writing a book on Dylan and Imitation: Originality on trial, and he picks up on the fact that many of Dylan’s paintings are based not on what he saw on his travels, as he claims, but on photographs or pictures by other people. “Dylan’s paintings of photographs that are themselves paintings provoke new (and largely overlooked) questions about imitation as an aesthetic practice,” writes Falco. This is followed by a chapter specifically about borrowing, by Professor of English Kevin Dettmar, author of the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. Dettmar is perhaps needlessly verbose, but I did enjoy it when he wrote “Although the release of Love and Theft perhaps represents the apex of Dylan’s intertextual creative process, it also coincided with the burgeoning corpus of searchable online digital texts and the growing sophistication of the Google search engine, under whose scrutiny the songwriter’s entire catalog has been revealed to be full of patches and duct tape.”

There are two chapters on Dylan and religion, one on Judaism by Elliot R Wolfson, and one Christianity by Andrew McCarron, author of a book on Dylan’s “religious identities.” I enjoyed them both; and liked that McCarron by no means focuses only on Dylan’s most overtly evangelistic phase but writes about “a man whose connection to God has changed as he has aged,” calling his chapter “An Exegesis of Modern Times”, a 2006 album. McCarron also, correctly I believe, observes how Dylan combines sexuality with spirituality and infuses women with holy powers; though it seems this did not always ensure good behaviour towards women which might have been an intriguing thread to follow.

The sections on politics and on legacy did not work so well for me; but I was interested in the final chapter, by Mark A Davidson who is Archives Director of the American Song Archives in Tulsa including the Bob Dylan Archive. Tulsa, he notes, has become the “center of the Bob Dylan universe,” quoting an article in Rolling Stone, and in one sense it is hard to disagree.

Oddly, this is also my biggest disappointment with The World of Bob Dylan, that there is relatively little here in terms of examination of the archive. There are occasional intriguing remarks like “in the case of a song like Jokerman, from his 1983 album Infidels, Dylan wrote and revised the song over the course of nineteen pages; “ I would love to know more about this, and will look forward to future books that explore some of these newly uncovered artistic treasures.

The World of Bob Dylan, like most collections of essays, is good in parts, and an effective taster for further work from some of the authors included.