Jump directly to the content

Alan Jacobs

It Ain't Me, Babe

Bob Dylan, reluctant prophet.

2 of 6view all

This decline is a shame, because if Marcus could either discover the virtues of editing or cut back on the caffeine and sugar he would be a fascinating commentator on the contemporary scene at least. In Invisible Republic, his instincts always lead him in the right direction, even if they can't make him keep his verbal car on one side of the double yellow line.

Above all, he understands both the centrality of Dylan to American culture and the centrality of The Basement Tapes to Dylan. Sometimes brilliantly, Marcus traces Dylan's summer in the house called Big Pink back through Harry Smith's enormously influential 1952 collection (recently reissued on cd), Anthology of American Folk Music—"Smith's Anthology is a backdrop to the basement tapes. More deeply, it is a version of them, and the basement tapes a shambling, twilight version of Smith's Anthology"—and back to figures like the Carter Family, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs, and then further back into a folk culture bereft of names.

Of the basement recordings, Marcus writes, "the stronger the songs get, the older they feel," and this is the most important thing to say about them. No wonder Robbie Robertson couldn't tell whether Dylan had just written "Tears of Rage," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "I Shall Be Released," or had found them. As Elvis Costello once said, "I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he's just found them under a stone."

But the songs from the summer in Big Pink's basement aren't the only Dylan songs that sound that way. That's how his career begins, with covers of old songs and "new" ones that aren't really new at all: "Girl from the North Country" is obviously a take on "Scarborough Fair," while "Blowin' in the Wind," as Marcus notes, steals its melody from a song sung by runaway slaves in the midnineteenth century. And from time to time in Dylan's career he has found it necessary to reconnect himself with those folk traditions: sometimes just by following their styles, structures, and patterns of instrumentation, as in that landmark of American music, Blood on the Tracks (1975), but sometimes simply by recording some great old songs that he hadn't written. Fans were puzzled and frustrated when he did it the first time, in the country standards of 1970's Nashville Skyline; perhaps they were more used to the idea by the time he did Good As I Been to You (1992) and the especially potent World Gone Wrong (1993), which are all old folk and blues classics. After all, by then, as we will later see, there was reason to think that good things would come from such a return to the sources. Ad fontes!

2. In Dylan, the prophet meets the bluesman: the ancient laments of Israel rejoin songs born in slavery and the cotton fields. From this vantage point it seems that it should have been obvious—though of course it wasn't—that Bob Dylan would become not just a monument of popular culture, but also a key figure in the social history of American religion.

"Popular culture," "folk culture," "mass culture"—these are terms that need discriminating usage. The "folk" that the early Dylan spoke for were hardly the working classes, though they envied the workers' authenticity; they were instead the disaffected and confused children of the middle classes, children who certainly felt their own inauthenticity. If they pretended to intellectuality, as many of them did, they read their own situation in Sartre's accounts of living by "bad faith," in Holden Caulfield's protests against "phoniness," in the Beats' determination to leave bad faith behind by going "on the road."

"Invisible Republic" Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes
by Greil Marcus
268 pp.; $22.50

Some historians write as if real folk or popular culture can only be achieved by the illiterate and oppressed, but the bourgeoisie can have their unofficial and unsanctioned mythologies too. Dylan came to incarnate one such myth, and to do so by drawing on musical forces that came from way down and way back in American history.

As Sister Rosetta Tharpe once said, "There's something in the gospel blues that's so deep the world can't stand it."

icon2 of 6view all

Most ReadMost Shared