Minstrelsy, Masculinity, and "Bob Dylan" as Text in I'm Not There

By McCombe, John | Post Script, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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Minstrelsy, Masculinity, and "Bob Dylan" as Text in I'm Not There

McCombe, John, Post Script

   Maggie comes fleet foot
   Face full of black soot
   Talkin' that the heat put
   Plants in the bed but
   The phone's tapped anyway
   Maggie says that many say
   They must bust in early May

--Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965)

In the song above that plays over the DVD menu of I'm Not There (2007), the audience immediately encounters a "face full of black soot." Given the various ways in which Dylan has performed race for nearly five decades, the link here to blackface minstrelsy should not be surprising--especially in a song that appears on Bringing it All Back Home (1965), an album in which Dylan's acoustic folk past is juxtaposed with an electric Chicago blues present. Since blackface minstrelsy is a performance--one in which white entertainers frequently "performed blackness"--Dylan can be linked in numerous ways to this discourse. From his early 90s cover version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" (a song by an artist whose dialect songs were central to the minstrel show repertoire) to Dylan's decision to title his 2001 album "Love and Theft"--itself "thieved" from Eric Lott's influential study of minstrelsy and 19th-century American identity politics--Dylan clearly understands how race, like gender, is constantly performed, and he repeatedly acknowledges his debt to two centuries of African-American musical culture.

In the present essay, I am interested in how Dylan's career-long performance of race intersects with his performance of masculinity. The primary vehicle for my analysis will be Todd Haynes' Dylan biopic I'm Not There; in particular, I will focus on the character of Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), one of the film's seven Dylan surrogates. (1) In many ways, I'm Not There offers an alternative to the traditional Hollywood biopic. After all, six different actors perform the roles of these seven Dylan-like characters, and the film itself announces almost immediately that it is "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan." Haynes quite literally presents many lives for his audience to consider, and none of the characters is actually named "Bob Dylan." In Haynes' film, a fixed conception of Dylan's identity is not there; instead, what is there is ample evidence of a structure of feeling towards race and masculinity that resonates throughout Dylan's songs and live performances. Much like blackface minstrelsy signifies "a peculiarly American structure of racial feeling" (Lott 18), I'm Not There invokes Dylan's ties to minstrelsy to demonstrate how Dylan's performances of race, gender, and sexuality are deeply interwoven. While many works before Haynes' film have confirmed Dylan's mercurial nature, especially in terms of his musical influences and the constant re-invention of song arrangements, Haynes' film highlights the shape-shifter whose sense of gender identity is every bit as fluid. Just as blackface is a mask--one that has invited numerous scholars to consider how it functions and what it means--gender identity is also a mask or, better yet, a series of masks that I'm Not There encourages its audience to investigate.


In a 2007 Cineaste interview, Haynes clearly outlines one of his major agendas in I'm Not There: the director describes the biopic as a "deceitful genre" that "blend[s] fact and fiction in every scene" (Porton 20). Even though Haynes pushes at the boundaries of the biopic, he also acknowledges some of its key conventions, which means that dramatic moments of Dylan's life structure the narrative, including his decision to "go electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and his motorcycle accident the following year. Nevertheless, the film's chronology is far from linear, and many of the casting choices intentionally raise questions, as Haynes, himself, emphasizes:

Take the choice of making "Woody" a little black kid who calls himself "Woody Guthrie." We all know that's not true to life. But you're forced to think about why that choice is being made--as opposed to the traditional biopic where you're not allowed to think about these choices because that would ruin the entire illusion.

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Minstrelsy, Masculinity, and "Bob Dylan" as Text in I'm Not There


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