Reading Bob Dylan

Here are a few recommended reads about the Nobel-winning troubadour, rock and roll’s poetry man.
We’ll leave the debate about whether song lyrics are poetry to others; we’re happy for Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Prize winner for literature. He’s the first singer/songwriter to be so celebrated, and while some may be scratching their heads, plenty of people think it’s the perfect choice. Fellow musician Al Kooper called him “the equivalent of Shakespeare” for our times, and that span has stretched over five-plus decades. His influence is felt far and wide, and his life and times have spurred dozens and dozens (and DOZENS) of books, documentaries, studies, and even college courses. Here are a few recommended reads about the Nobel-winning troubadour, rock and roll’s poetry man. Among the many documentaries on Dylan, you can’t go wrong with D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal 1967 doc, Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back or Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film, No Direction Home.

Parsing the Poet

all-the-songsMargotin, Philippe & Jean-Michel Guesdon. Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track. (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2015). A comprehensive, detailed, well-researched “labor of love” discusses nearly all of Dylan’s recordings (492 studio songs, originals and covers), from the early 1960s through 2015. In his starred review, LJ’s Thomas Karel wrote of this heavily illustrated title, “A Dylan fan could live inside this book for weeks.” (LJ 11/15/15.) Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. (Chicago Review, 2012). Another “encyclopedic account” of (almost) every song Dylan wrote from “juvenile efforts in the late 1950s” to 1973’s Planet Waves. Heylin’s fourth book on Dylan was deemed “fascinating” and “a perfect companion to Heylin’s Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960–1994” by Dylan fan/LJ reviewer Karel. (LJ 2/15/09)

In His Own Words

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, Vol. 1. (S. & S., 2004).  Dylan’s memoir has been called “poetical” and elegiac, as befits the writing of a Nobel laureate. Dylan, Bob. The Lyrics: 1961–2012. ed. by Lisa Nemrow, Christopher Ricks, & Julie Nemrow. (S. & S., 2014)  The lyrics for which Dylan received Nobel laurels are presented as poems in this monster-sized edition. With an intro by Ricks, who knows his poetry, having worked on volumes devoted to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. [Ed. note—Simon & Schuster has bumped up its scheduled rereleases of Chronicles and The Lyrics; look for them in early November 2016.]

Bob Bios

Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. (Grove, 2001). LJ’s Lloyd Jansen compared British journalist Sounes’s bio to the “definitive Dylan biography” Clinton Heylin's Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades (see below), noting that Sounes does a better job of “portraying Dylan’s human side” because of access to “previously tight-lipped friends, lovers, and associates” who spoke candidly about the pop icon. (LJ 5/1/01) shadesHeylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. (Morrow, 2001). This reworking of a 1991 bio of the same name by Heylin was rapturously reviewed and starred by Jansen, who called it “the most authoritative Dylan biography available,” adding that Heylin “cockily criticizes” other Dylan biographers and makes “obscure references to Shakespeare and others, assuming that his audience will understand the connection to Dylan’s work.” Maybe the Nobel committee picked up this tome. (LJ 10/1/00) Batchelor, Bob. Bob Dylan: A Biography. (Greenwood, 2014). LJ’s Douglas King called this “a solid primer for students and critical readers,” noting that pop culture writer Batchelor focuses on the most significant accomplishments in Dylan’s career, including his commercial resurgence at age 70. King recommended the book for its extensive annotated list of Dylan books, films, websites, and other resources and a biographical time line—which will have to be updated now! (LJ, 5/15/14) Brown, Donald. Bob Dylan: American Troubadour. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Karel calls this book by editor and theater critic Brown a “crisp and concise contribution to Dylan scholarship.” Especially useful is the final section covering the years 2000–12, and Dylan’s mini-comeback and “relentless touring.” (LJ 2/1/14)

The Village, Newport, and Woodstock Years

freewheelinRotolo, Suze. A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. (Broadway, 2008). You know her: she’s the blonde walking with Dylan on the cover of his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Rotolo’s memoir of her mercurial love affair with Dylan and search for her own identity amid the 1960s Greenwich Village art scene  is written in a poetic style, and LJ’s Douglas King recommended it to readers who “can’t get enough Dylan.” (LJ 4/1/08) Hajdu, David. Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña. (Farrar, 2001). Hajdu charts the freewheelin’ Greenwich Village years of Dylan and “folk queen” Baez, as well as Baez’s sister Mimi and her husband, Richard Fariña. Reviewer Lloyd Jansen recommended it “for Dylan fans and enthusiasts of the 1960s folk revival.” (LJ 5/1/01) Hoskyns, Barney. Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock. (Da Capo, 2016). Woodstock, NY, figures in the Dylan mythos almost as much as the Village does. This is where he retreated to heal after a major motorcycle accident in 1966 and began recording with The Band. Hoskyns’s examination of the Catskills town and its “wild years” featured an all-star cast along with Dylan. LJ’s Elizabeth Eisen noted, “The era was rife with open marriages, heavy drug use, and death at a young age.” Lucky for us, Dylan wasn’t one of those early departees. (LJ 1/1/16)
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Liz French

Great post, Suzanne, thanks for all the inspired recommendations.

Posted : Oct 21, 2016 08:37


Suzanne Moore

Bob is my long-time favorite musician and songwriter! Many books have been written about our hero Bob. But I want to add, that along with reading everything about him, his lyrics have also inspired me to look into other authors that are mentioned in his songs and maybe were inspirations to him. In Ballad of a Thin Man ... there is mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S.Elliot, and in You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, I was led to the works of Arthur Rimbaud. Phrases from other songs "whom does the bell toll for ... it tolls for you and me" and "as I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, the wounded flowers were dangling from the vines" ... inspired me to read Hemingway and Hawthorne. The Old Man in the Sea is well-read as a required novel by many students, but I found For Whom the Bell Tolls after Bob's mention of the phrase, and now enjoy Hemingway even more. The song Ain't Talkin' reminds me of Hawthorne's story Rappaccini's Daughter. I love the literary references and I love Dylan's "new poetic expressions." Each song reveals new meanings and triggers explorations in so many areas. He also has a way of speaking to my heart and soul through his music. The Nobel Peace Prize for Literature is definitely a well-deserved honor for Bob.

Posted : Oct 21, 2016 05:01


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