In 2020 Princeton University Press (PUP) launched a new marketing, sales, and distribution partnership with Zone Books, a New York City-based independent, nonprofit publisher of arts, humanities, and social science titles. The book on the music of Bob Dylan is one of joint venture’s first titles — and a book that Princeton University professor and noted music scholar and musician Nigel Smith calls a “study that sets a gold standard.” In the following excerpt, Timothy Hampton, a professor of comparative literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley, puts Dylan’s work into an era’s historic and artistic context:
It is fair to say that Dylan’s work reveals a complexity and compaction not seen in the work of most other popular artist. That is, Dylan’s work feels “denser” or “deeper” (in an almost tactile sense, not necessarily in any philosophical sense) than that of most of his contemporaries. The American writer Ezra Pound emphasized that the poet is someone who makes language think, who condenses it — as the German word for poet, Dichter, comes from the word for “Thicken.” As a master of citation, a combiner, a collagist, a paster, a thickener, Dylan is able to lend a new density to song. His singing personal functions as a kind of medium or vehicle through which the listener can glimpse or hear the sonic landscape of some other moment or territory where “Bob Dylan,” the composer, seems to roam. This sense of density — what we might call the “Dylanesque” feature of his work — is achieved through a mastery of the art of combination or collage.
The multilayer density of Dylan’s songs and the metamorphic energy of the lyrics brings us to yet another sense of style, which links up the modern idea of “fashion” or “mode” — the contentions that dominate a particular moment but are soon set aside as “old fashioned” and rejected. This dynamic is, of course, the dynamic of mass production and of the modern culture industry. Dylan’s work consistently exploits the way fashion is transformed by the passage of time. He turns again and again to the relationship between the “now” and the “future,” one the one hand, and, on the other hand, the archaic, the premodern, the quaint. To a degree unrivaled by any modern popular artist Dylan is a miner of old forms, an expeditionary heading back to the hoary world of the predigital modes of expression — old songs, old sentences, old images, old chords.
Dylan’s constant reflection on the “old” and the “new,” on what the poet Rimbaud called the “absolutely modern,” will help us to locate the songs in a history of forms. Dylan’s work takes shape in the post-World War II moment, the moment of television and the automobile. Thus, the most pertinent historical context for understanding his work may be less that of rock music, or of “the Sixties,” than of artistic modernism more generally. By “modernism,” I have in mind that current of artistic experimentation that expands from the French Impressionists in the 19th century through the “geniuses” of the early 20th (Woolf, Stravinsky, Eliot, Eisenstein, Ellington, Picasso) and on to the emergence of a later “modernist” style after World War II (Pollock, Nabokov, Henry Moore, Charlie Parker, Orson Welles). Dylan comes of age at the moment at which “modernism” first becomes recognized as a kind of international style in art and at which it begins to reach a mass audience, spreading beyond the world of the avant-gardes. Yet more pertinent than the history, for our purposes, are the technical discoveries of modern art: the focus on formal integrity as the response to historical chaos, the importation of “low” culture into “high” culture (and vice versa), the fragmentation of time and space, the continual vexed worrying about the past, about tradition and originality, the idea of culture as a ruin, the emphasis on artificial or invented objects and moments as bearers of peak or authentic experience within an increasingly unreal “real world.” Modernist art privileges the moment, an absolute contemporaneity that simultaneously seeks to break with history and take stock of its own relationship to what has been lost. It struggles to come to terms with a world that has been stripped of its religious magic by the logic of capitalism, what Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” Dylan’s reformulation, “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred,” from 1964’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” offers a later articulation of the same idea, written from the swirl of postwar industrial expansion and 1960s media culture.
Dylan differs from several of his contemporaries who went on to develop influential bodies of work as particularly “dense” or “poetic” songwriters. For example, Leonard Cohen’s voice and songs seem to come from a bounded place of unusual concentration — at the intersection of the erotic and the spiritual — out of which he generates powerful insights about desire and regret. It is no accident that this type of intensity requires a deep focus on the frailty of the self (which we might see paralleled, biographically, in Cohen’s interest in Buddhism and Jewish mysticism). It results in a closely circumscribed though forceful, poetic vision.
Or, to take another example, we could recall the works of Joni Mitchell, which generates much of its energy out of Mitchell’s self-dramatizing and romantic recreations of her own adventures in love and art. This might be linked to her pioneering status, along with Laura Nyro, as one of the first great female singer-songwriters. Lacking the ready-made paradigms of desire and amorous conquest available to their male colleagues, she generated her own counter stories by showcasing her escapades, triumphs, and foibles. This is reflected in Mitchell’s insistence on herself as “original” and an “artist.” Dylan, by contrast, offered an album called “Self Portrait” that consisted of sons by other people. Quite unlike both Cohen and Mitchell, Dylan radiates outworld in his work, and his interest lies in absorbing into his singing persona all of the material of the culture around him.
To study Dylan’s art and its combinatory power, we need to take into his account the different ways in which he uses the “I” who appears in his compositions. This “I” is, of course, a fiction, just as the “I” of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a fiction and the “I” of Marty Robbin’s 1959 border ballad “El Paso” is a fiction. It is a character that Dylan invites anew for each song. Sometimes that character knows many things. Sometimes it knows little. Sometimes it thinks it knows more that it does. Sometimes it says more that it knows. Moreover, like many self-invented artists, Dylan seems to locate his persona in relationship to various exemplary figures, both real and fictional (Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac, Jay Gatsby, Billy the Kid, Rett Butler, Jack London). Yet, what I important about these figures is not their role in the development of personal identity — they will change — but rather the literary and musical resources they free up. In what follows I will be speaking interchangeability of the “hero” or “protagonist” or “narrator” of Dylan’s songs.
This question of the “I” poses interesting problems when we consider Dylan’s own location in his songs. Just as he is often most “political” when least political, so may his hand be felt most clearly in songs that cannot be linked in any narrative way to “Bob Dylan.” We can think, in this context, of a song like 1995’s “Dignity.” The song recounts the adventures of an “I” who appears to be a private detective, much in the mold of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who crisscrosses a nocturnal cityscape that feels like Los Angeles, in search of someone or something called “Dignity.” We watch as the hero goes from scene to scene: a tattoo parlor, a fancy party, a cheap bar, and abandoned apartment, “asking the cops wherever I go, ‘Have you seen Dignity?’” The literary trick of leaving the identity or nature of “Dignity” vague makes the song particularly powerful, as it yokes a seedy crime story to a grand philosophical quest. (Indeed, where can one find something like dignity at the end of the 1980s, the decade of arbitrageurs, Teflon presidents, and Spandex?)
Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work by Timothy Hampton, 288 pages, $21.95 paperback, Zone Books in cooperation with Princeton University Press.