Books: Blood on the Tracks ; There Must Be Some Way out of Here ... as Poetical and Political Dylan Fans Argue Their Case, Bryan Cheyette Searches for the Singer Behind the Scholars
Cheyette, Bryan, The Independent (London, England)
THERE ARE "Bobcats" and "Dylanologists". Bobcats focus mainly on the gigs, Dylanologists on the lyrics. Books on Bob Dylan, until recently, have been dominated by Bobcats who record, anorakishly, every detail of their idol's life, record his most obscure utterance, and note minor variations in performances. This work tends to be obsessive, hagiographical and overwhelms the reader with truckloads of unprocessed information.
To be sure, Christopher Ricks, the doyen of Dylanologists, is also obsessive and hagiographical. But Ricks's enthusiasm for Dylan's song-poems, honed over three decades, is part of a wider argument concerning the importance of Dylan as a poet. The "Keats versus Dylan" debate (instigated in 1992) is now irrelevant as we have instead Keats and Dylan or, for that matter, Keats and Dylan and Shakespeare.
Ricks is Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. He is best known for his influential books on English poetry and the English poets: Milton, Tennyson, Keats and T S Eliot. Dylan quickly finds himself in this illustrious company and is soon joined by Blake, Browning, Burns, Donne, Hardy, Hopkins, Larkin, Marvell, Swift, and, not least, that "Dylanesque writer William Shakespeare". As the above list of "analogues" indicates, Ricks's Dylan could not be more canonical. He is placed in a Christian English literary tradition, as if Dylan's mid-western Jewish-American background counts for nothing.
Although Woody Guthrie has a walk-on part, one would hardly know from Ricks's book that Dylan was steeped in an American folk tradition which valued above all the immediacy of the spoken word, the power of community and the naturalness of everyday American folk. This is the subject of Mike Marqusee's Chimes of Freedom, which could not be more different. Whereas Ricks praises "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" for not being "handcuffed to a political particularity", Marqusee is especially concerned with the particularities of the civil rights movement and the segregated South. His aim is to understand Dylan's great songs from the 1960s as a product of an extraordinary social milieu, without being reduced to that milieu.
Ricks, on the other hand, is concerned primarily with the words on the page and their relationship to the literary canon. Claiming Dylan for high culture is, as he well knows, not straightforward. He describes Dylan as "one of the great rhymesters of all time" but is aware that he has not accounted for the "interdependence of Dylan's art", which combines words, music and voice. Allen Ginsberg rightly thought of Dylan's songs as "poetry-music". If the critic merely attends to words on the page there is, as Ricks acknowledges, a distinct lack of "equilateral thinking". As Marqusee points out, Dylan knew this as early as 1965 when he stated: "I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist".
Dylan has always been a high-wire act - balanced uneasily between the written and the spoken word - and this has made him peculiarly elusive (as well as peculiarly allusive). His gloriously imperfect singing voice, and his boundless ability to mix musical styles, make him impossible to pin down. It is this aesthetically and culturally impure Dylan that Ricks insists on purifying and canonising. He does this by reducing around 40 songs (oh, how they struggle) to Christian virtues and vices: the Seven Deadly Sins, the Cardinal Virtues and the Heavenly Graces.
The value of Ricks's …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: Blood on the Tracks ; There Must Be Some Way out of Here ... as Poetical and Political Dylan Fans Argue Their Case, Bryan Cheyette Searches for the Singer Behind the Scholars. Contributors: Cheyette, Bryan - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 27, 2003. Page number: 38. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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