Professor Bryan Cheyette writes:
There are Bobcats and Dylanologists. Bobcats focus mainly on the concerts, Dylanologists on the lyrics. Bobcats record anorakishly every detail of their idol’s life but Dylanologists focus on just one aspect, as they tend to be professors of literature. While Bobcats have enthusiasm, Dylanologists have insight. The latter also breed like rabbits. There are, it is said, over 1,000 books published on Dylan with 250 university courses on His Bobness as a literary creator.
Awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first American since Toni Morrison in 1993 – is a triumph of Dylanology.
The Dylanologist-in-Chief is Sir Christopher Ricks, former Oxford Professor of Poetry. His monumental (but a little crazed) Dylan’s Vision of Sin (2003) is the high point of reading Dylan’s lyrics as literature. The “Keats versus Dylan” debate in the 1990s, instigated by Sir Christopher, was the first time that Dylan was thought of as a literary figure. Two decades later, Sir Christopher couples Dylan with a plethora of canonical English poets with, at the top of the pile, the “Dylanesque writer William Shakespeare”.
While Sir Christopher’s book may have convinced the Nobel Prize committee, it placed Dylan in a peculiarly Christian English literary tradition, as if his Mid-Western Jewish-American background, or his abiding love of the radical folk singer Woody Guthrie, counts for nothing.
This is Dylan in the image of an Oxford Professor of Poetry, although, to be fair to Sir Christopher, he accepts that Dylan cannot be judged by words alone. He is a song-poet who triangulates voice, music and words and all three ingredients contribute equally to his genius. The main problem, Sir Christopher argues, is that there is no Nobel Prize for song-writing; none even for music. That is why the uncategorisable Dylan had to be squeezed into the category of literature.
Now I have a confession to make. I have contributed to a book called Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors (2002), a collection of essays by world-renowned Dylanologists and myself. The editor of the volume, Neil Corcoran, had encouraged me, as a fledgling, to research Jewish literature. He came to me when he realised that his collection had covered every facet of Dylan’s lyrical wordplay without mentioning his Jewishness.
After all, Robert Allen Zimmerman was his birth name. He had a conventional Jewish upbringing in Minnesota including a brit, barmitzvah and Zionist summer camp.
How could I write an essay on Dylan’s Jewishness without being equally conventional?
In my youth, I was a Teenage Bobcat who listened religiously to Dylan’s music – especially the early great albums – Blonde on Blonde (1966), Blood on the Tracks (1975), Desire (1976) – and, like many of his fans, thought that I was communing directly with his authentic voice. After all, like Dylan, I was the son of a Jewish shopkeeper and I was also from a smallish town, albeit in the British Midlands. But, like many fans of my generation, I stopped listening to Dylan when he followed one of his best albums, Street-Legal (1978) with what I regarded as one of his worst, Slow Train Coming (1979). This album inaugurated a two-year period in which Dylan was heavily influenced by a brand of Californian evangelical Christianity.
So how Jewish was Dylan?
One of Dylan’s favourite sayings is taken from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud: “I is another”. In more individualistic American style, he has said in an interview: “You’re born, you know, with the wrong names, wrong parents. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Dylan, in other words, is a serial convert. There is one kind of musical conversion – from, say, folk-blues to folk-rock or from rock ‘n’ roll to country blues and back to rhythm and blues – which means that Dylan, as a performer, can never be pinned down. But can we separate performer from person? Dylan’s uncertain Jewishness results in a never-ending search for authenticity.
His Christian phase was one version of this search but it was quickly followed by Dylan studying with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York and trips to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Jewish Messianism, in all of its guises, fascinates Dylan. His repeated reference to the Hebrew Bible in his songs places him in the great tradition of literature and makes him a great American outlaw. As he says in his famous Biograph (1985) interview: “As far as the ’60s go, it wasn’t a big deal. If I had the choice, I would rather have lived at the time of King David, when he was the High King of Israel. I’d love to have been riding with him when he was a hunted outlaw.” Only Dylan can make biblical times and biblical messianic prophecies seem so ordinary. That is his greatness both as a Jew and as a poet.