Final Paper: Bob Dylan in Perspective
On this third and final paper, I want to turn you loose to pick a topic on interest to you and go with it. Below are some prompts, but feel free to bring up your own ideas if these do not offer you the freedom you would like you to have.
"Some songs don't have meaning;" says Paul Williams writing about the music found on The Basement Tapes, "they overflow with feelings instead." (233) Of the same music, Mike Marqusee states that by self-consciously going back in time and writing simple, even inconsequential songs, Bob Dylan was engaging in "a search for timelessness." He created "memorable hooks and melodies...that are both instantly accessible and impenetrably mysterious." (211)** Robbie Robertson also noted that the music of The Basement Tapes reflect "a discovery process." (See Gill, pp. 110-11) Select some songs from The Basement Tapes and/or John Wesley Harding and discuss how they may constitute such a search for timelessness or how they might reflect a process of discovery.
John Wesley Harding may be one of Dylan's more enigmatic records. As one reviewer notes, "it is an album of half-spoken secrets, hushed whispers, illegible writings and missing pages....It is beautifully anachronistic and illusive. It is hard, gritty, seemingly impenetrable. it is blindingly complex; addictively rewarding." It has an ominous feeling at times; the songs seem to be portents, omens, warnings of some calamity that lies ahead. But what calamity? When? Where? What should we do? Well, don't "talk falsely, now, the hour si getting late." He suggests that we should "Trust your brother," and "Live by no man's code, and hold your judgments for yourself," lest you wind up on the same road as the lonesome hobo. And, oh yeah, "One should never be, where one does not belong. And if you see your neighbor carryin' something, help him with his load, and don't go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road." As Andy Gill wrote about this album, filled with homilies and parables, conflicts and tensions, as it is, it "never bothers straining for the listener's attention: the tales are here to hear, it suggests, but you'll have to pay attention." (126) What do you think Bob Dylan is asking his listeners to pay attention to in the lyrics to these songs? Write an essay that examines the lyrics of some of the songs on JWH and discuss what the language and tone he has adopted seems to be saying and how does his lyrical style in these songs compare with other writing he has done?
Read Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One carefully and pick out sections that speak to some aspects of Dylan's career trajectory or creative process and write a paper about how he works as an artist and/or how he fits in the American tradition. It is important to work closely with the text; weave quotes from Chronicles into your narrative and shape your discussion around what Dylan is discussing.
If Blood on the Tracks is your cup of tea, write a paper focusing on that record and explain why many feel that it is one of his greatest achievements.
Pick any of the records Dylan has made in the last dozen years starting with Time Out of Mind and make an argument for or against the idea that they constitute works every bit as deep and meaningful as his classic works of the 1960s. One of the reasons for studying Bob Dylan's "oeuvre" is because he is such an enduring artist and one who has grappled openly in his songs with his creative process. Looking back over his career through the lens of his more recent albums, what can we say about Dylan as a songwriter and an artist? What has been his main contribution do you think?
**A fuller version of Marqusee quote:
The Dylan originals on The Basement Tapes boast a startling profusion of memorable hooks and melodies. Song after song features swelling, emotion-choked choruses that are both instantly accessible and impenetrably mysterious. The verses, in contrast, are often wayward, half-told anecdotes, passing impressions, verbal fragments, and nonetheless seductively intriguing for that.
For five years--the first half of his twenties--Dylan had been in the van, racing ahead, sustaining a precarious balance on the crest of a wave. But at the very moment when avant-gardism was sweeping through new cultural corridors, Dylan decided to dismount. The dandified, aggressively modern surface was replaced by a self-consciously unassuming and traditional grab. The giddiness embodied, celebrated, dissected in the songs of the mid-sixties had left him exhausted. He sought safety in a retreat to the countryside that was also a retreat in time, or more precisely, a search for timelessness. The basement sessions have the air of soothing a fever--the fever of incessant innovation that Dylan had embodied so intensely for a few eventful years. Vindictiveness and righteous indignation have been replaced by a more reflective and less judgmental temper.
And remember when you're out there
Tryin' to heal the sick
That you must always
First forgive them
In The Basement Tapes, Dylan is once again writing against the times, though also very much from within them. The songs might even be interpreted as a running critique of the ephemeral delusions of the summer of love. They are delicately balanced between absurdity and grandeur, laughter and terror, brooding fatalism and the lingering taste of freedom. (211-212)