Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs
In the half-century that he’s been writing about Bob Dylan, Greil Marcus has published four books solely on the storied singer-songwriter, most recently the omnium-gatherum Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings, 1968–2010 (2010). Dylan, in turn, has released a few records since then, but really, what can there be left to write? Marcus’s answer – despite his subtitle’s suggestion that he’s screwing with a commissioning editor’s project – is not a biography, not really. Starting from the position that ‘the engine of [Dylan’s] songs is empathy’, he sees his subject – not controversially – as endlessly slipping into other lives, other voices, and as such almost an ungraspable cipher. The biography, Marcus seems to reason, must emerge prismatically, if at all, through Dylan’s core achievement: the songs themselves.
As such, the Life – from Dylan’s birth in Duluth, Minnesota, to a 2021 tour announcement, via the Pulitzer Prize – is dispensed with in two opening pages. Then the owlish, nobody’s-fanboy author who notoriously began a review of Dylan’s 1970 album Self-portrait with the question ‘What is this shit?’ makes a skewed, oracular selection of songs-as-signposts. So yes, 1962’s Blowin’ in the Wind (which gets some 80 pages), 1964’s The Times They Are A-changin’ (which gets a scant eight) and, almost inevitably, 2020’s late-style epic Murder Most Foul. Oh and nothing, nada, from 1966–91. Dylan’s huge, adoring fanbase might rightly feel trolled.
The section on Blowin’… delivers wholly on Marcus’s apparent aims. The song, which the writer says he disliked until 2011, when he saw how ‘unfinished’ it was, how its lack of specifics made it a vessel for changin’ times, is exploded as artefact. Talking about its genesis, Marcus traverses Dylan’s rapid-fire rise through the Greenwich Village folk scene (which led to drug deaths and suicides, he says), the composition’s roots in and transcendence of other, earlier songs; how the nuances of various performances shift its meaning. Marcus, with the song as a thread, passes through Dylan’s motley 1970s and addled 80s, Obama’s election, the murder of George Floyd.
It’s criticism-asdare, almost: how far outward, and inward, can you go with one subject, how discursive can you be and stay on-topic, how granular? On occasion Marcus ventures into the extra-auditory, hearing ‘a hum that seems to have been in the air of history: the sound of bodies going back to dust, the hum of thousands of insects…’. Well, ÃÄ. But his attention to the modulating weight of sung delivery, version to version, is something anyone listening back can grasp anew, and Dylan’s onstage recounting of an academic’s misunderstanding of the lyric – he thought it advised listeners to blow into the wind – is priceless. (Dylan: “This guy is going to be a teacher! He’s got a master’s degree!”)
For sure, Folk Music is a book to argue with, to squint at, as Marcus rattles through polymathic lanes of argument. Dylan’s 2006 philosophical ramble Ain’t Talkin’ is framed in terms of Roman poet Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea, a semiobscure musical antecedent from 1950s Detroit and a scrap of writing by Machiavelli. A long, much-pored-over track like Desolation Row (1965) gets given short exegetical shrift. By the time Marcus reaches Murder Most Foul,
though, he’s closed the book’s circle, returning to Dylan-as-empath, ‘putting on Kennedy’s bloody suit’, before the song transforms, to the writer’s ears, into a sonic Hieronymus Bosch painting. There’s a touch of ambulance-chasing in Marcus’s closing line, ‘What will go out of the world with him?’, but it’s counterbalanced by how alive, present-tense and contentiously textual he’s made the music discussed up to that point. This, then, isn’t my favourite of Marcus’s Dylan books (that would be 1997’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes),
but it might be his most resonant tribute to His Bobness: a primer in how seriously to take major art and how to live alongside it in real time, delivered with an idiosyncrasy and crooked grace worthy of its subject. Martin Herbert