In Folk music, Greil Marcus has captured a whole world of the creative and cultural development of the artist known as Bob Dylan in a single book. It not only tells a seven-song biography of Dylan, but creates an autobiography of his own long writing career about music and America, as well as a rich history of American folk songs and the new life they brought. spawned when Dylan sat down to write his own. How does he do it, I’ve often wondered when I’ve read it in the past. This time I have no answers at all – only admiration and respect.
Other Dylan biographies (a growing number) often tell you more about their authors than about their subject. Writers such as Howard Sounes and Bob Spitz have focused on revealing details of Dylan’s turbulent personal life that, honestly, are far less interesting than his work. by Sean Wilentz Bob Dylan in Americawhich zooms in on key moments in Dylan’s creative process, and that of Richard Thomas Why Bob Dylan Matters, with its careful readings of the songs, are both invaluable books for students and admirers of Dylan. But Marcus goes further and his in-depth analysis of the songs themselves is unmatched.
His cultural knowledge of American history and music spans the 77 years of his life and many centuries before, from the sea shanties sung by English sailors as they sailed to the mysterious lands of the west, to revitalized, stone-instrumented Highland ballads. and the plank porches of Appalachian cabins. Marcus’ understanding of the music from which Dylan’s own songs are derived is vast, and he brings it to his readings and celebrations of Dylan’s songs without condescension or pretension.
Its passionate intensity could be off-putting – as some reviewers have long complained. I tend to relish it, and never more so than in this book, which is a perfect storm of things to love: American history, music history, Dylan’s music, and beautiful writing. The style is familiar but not informal; instructive but not didactic, and downright seductive to follow. It would be easy to get repetitive when writing about Dylan’s songs, but Marcus isn’t. He sees connections, sure, but also things that separate the individual songs and moments of Dylan’s life, and elevate them into neat, well-reasoned relief. The jacket cover and thoughtful interior designs by Max Clarke complement and illustrate Marcus and Dylan’s words with bite and flair.
The seven songs are, in the order in which they are arranged: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962); ‘The Lonely Death of Hattie Carroll’ (1964); ‘I don’t speak’ (2006); “The Times They Change” (1964); ‘Desolation Row’ (1965); ‘Jim Jones’ (1992); and “Murder Most Foul” (2020). Their preface is a two-page biography of Dylan, just to show that it can indeed be done, and a backing track titled “In Other Lives”:
“I can see myself in other people,” Dylan said in Rome in 2001, addressing a crowd of reporters. If there is a key to his work from the beginning, it may be this.
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The “if” and “may” conditionals so beloved of Modernist writers do a lot of work here – but all is well. Dylan doesn’t just lend himself to the conditional; that defines it. He lives life not only from the songs he wrote, but also from those he learned from others and performed for almost 70 years. This spirit shapes Marcus’ “attempted biography made of songs and public gestures” into “a frame of reference, a source of life for certain songs… But never a key to their meaning”. Keys lock you in. Marcus can’t do this to Dylan. It’s good that his book doesn’t follow a chronological order, because Dylan doesn’t. Marcus understands that and relishes that.
A lifelong New Yorker, he is particularly sensitive to Dylan in Greenwich Village and the other musicians Dylan met and learned from there. For example, the dark life of Karen Dalton and the great gifts she had are well and sensitively told. Interviews with Happy Traum, a crucial figure in the Village folk scene who still lives, records and performs in Woodstock, add a lot. The way Dylan translates the old prisoner’s lament “Jim Jones” into performance is a spectacular chapter. It’s fitting to include a song (or even more) that Dylan didn’t write himself, because the use of songs he loves and the stories they tell are central to this book, as they are at the heart of Dylan’s art.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is one of his most famous and beloved songs. With a small band of musicians and T Bone Burnett, Dylan recently made a one-of-a-kind recording of it that sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $2 million. Written in 1962, when Dylan was 21, one could say that the song is from his youth – except that he had no youth: he came out completely formed from the belly of the artist. It has its roots in the American Civil War anthem “No More Auction Block”, and in particular in Odetta’s 1960 recording of her performance at Carnegie Hall.
Civil War underpins much of the book, and as it should. We recognize how important it still is in America; yet no one has yet fully recognized and explored how important this is to Dylan, his music and his films.
Also in the ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ chapter are Malcolm X and Robert Johnson; Woody Guthrie and the Greenwich Village folk scene; the songs Dylan absorbed from other performers in cafes and clubs; and the clear, strong voice of artist and writer Susan Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend at the time – the young woman walking with him down Jones Street on the cover of Bob Dylan coasting (1963), the disc which opens with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Marcus’ exploration of the song is key to setting the scene for the rest of the biography: a Brunswick stew of things you’ve heard before, new stories, stories of old, and connections to later and today. today, all assembled in a masterful way. . “There are no straight lines in the language the songs speak” is a phrase I always wish I had written.
Much of the power of Marcus’ storytelling is in the stories behind each of the songs he talks about. He can talk about “Old Dan Tucker” on one page and Machiavelli and Ovid on the next, and still be right about the influences on Dylan. Quotes from rare interviews or Dylan’s fake autobiography Chronicles: Volume 1 (2004), in which he talks about the composition of a song, weaves together scenes that are renewed before us. The chapter on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, one of Dylan’s most powerful songs, reminds us of what America was like in 1963, when young and wealthy William Devereux Zantinger hit Carroll, a black bartender from 51, with a toy cane at a Baltimore Hotel Society rally, causing her death – for which Zantinger was sentenced to six months in prison.
And then Marcus recalls recent times, when “Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner walked through the White House like it could have been the Palace of Versailles…and the rich were paid to be free, to represent freedom for everyone else” . Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, in which ‘the object of deconstruction was the United States itself’, and her rendition of the song just eight days after 9/11, with its chilling ‘Here come the planes’ , is a song with a soul mate.
Marcus is excellent about the strange and exciting way songs “break away from their authors” and “mark history, even make it, but become part of its fabric, or part of the flag”. His discussion of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” set against the backdrop of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 of last year, is as quick, brief, and harsh as a slap in the face. Such connections not only make you think, but realize that your heart is beating faster, you’re scared, and you should breathe quietly for a few moments before reading on.
The chapter on “Murder Most Foul” is the best thing written so far on this stunning new ballad, the only song on Dylan’s latest album. Rough and rowdy ways (2020) that he has not performed live yet. Here’s how Marcus puts our shared listening experience:
All of this testified to the first fact of the song: the strange way it can hardly be heard once without arousing the need to hear it again; a world gathering around a campfire of unanswered questions, and everyone around the campfire needs to hear the whole song.
Like Dylan, Marcus carries with him the influences and the people, the lyrics and the songs that he always relies on.
The last line of Folk music made me gasp out loud – the first time a book has done this since I read Grapes of Wrath, 12 years. But don’t jump on it. Take your time, savor the book, and listen to each song before you start reading its chapter. And listen to the others you find there too. After all, you have to know your song well before you can start singing.