Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

“Bob Dylan: New York” by June Skinner Sawyers (Roaring Forties Press”/”Bob Dylan:Like A Complete Unknown” by David Yaffe ( (Yale University Press)

The celebration of Bob Dylan’s milestone 70th birthday continues unabated in the nation’s bookstores, with a wealth of newly written material, newly reissued material, and of course old favorites sharing space on the shelves. Here are two recent additions which have caught my attention.

“Bob Dylan: New York” is part of Roaring Forties’ “MusicPlace” series which, to quote their own blurb, “unravels the relationships between musicians and the cities they call home.” In other words, the theme of June Skinner Sawyers’ book is to examine Bob Dylan’s early years on the New York folk scene by looking at his life in the City and the work he produced there, exploring the relationship between the two. This could well be the subject for a weighty academic tome, but Sawyers has instead given us a more readable, informal glimpse of the New York neighborhoods in which Dylan spent his first productive, dare I say most innovative years, the clubs and shops he frequented, the people he hung with, and so on.

What it may lack in depth, it gains in capturing the feeling of young Bob finding his way around Greenwich Village, seen from the vantage point of the settings which figured into many of his songs. It is an atmospheric history with enough detail to make you feel at home in Dylan’s world. Indeed, it could well be used a travel guide, since addresses and maps are provided, though most of the places mentioned are long-since out-of-business, serving other uses, or torn down. You can carry it with you on your own Dylan history walk, if you wish, since it does not bog the reader down in analysis or technicalities, which when viewed in relation to so many of the current crop of Dylanological works, is actually downright refreshing.

Sawyers has done the vast majority of her biographical research in other people’s books, so you should not expect amazing new insights, previously uncovered facts, interviews with long-lost Dylan pals, or the like. Sometimes, it’s all in how you arrange the material you’ve learned from other sources, and the first two-thirds of this book is very good in this respect. If you’ve read a lot of Dylan-oriented books, you may well know most, perhaps all, of the actual facts presented here already. Even so, they’re assembled from a fresh perspective, one of time and place, so as to trace Dylan’s growing consciousness of what he wanted to do with his career and how he proceeded in turning those ideas into reality. It is only after Dylan, and subsequently the book, leave New York City proper and move upstate a bit that things become spotty. The details seem more haphazard (two words - “Nashville Skyline”), the observations more obtuse, the settings less easy to grasp. One wishes the author would have clung more assiduously to her original concept of Dylan in New York City, without worrying about his later career.

But up to that point, this is a lively look at young Bob Dylan and the scene that spawned him. I have no qualms about recommending this to anyone looking for a jargon-free and agenda-less introduction to Dylan and his early career.


David Yaffe’s “Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown” is likewise relatively jargon-free as University Press books go, but it is jam-packed with agenda. One might say it is ALL agenda. The dust-jacket blurbs are lavish in their praise from authors and academicians. Yet, while I will confess to having had a good read, I am left with the feeling that I haven’t really learned much that is shockingly new, that other folks - whether writers, readers, or just fans - haven’t already considered for themselves. Having said that, I would suggest you might wish to give it strong consideration, if only because Yaffe phrases his interpretations in a fresh, original manner. Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how well you say it that makes a book significant.

Yaffe divides his book into four sections (not counting an Introduction and an Afterword). In the first, he discusses how Dylan’s singing voice has altered so often through the years, and how these changes in vocal quality have mirrored changes in Dylan’s song material and worldview. Haven’t we all made this connection already? Even so, it’s certainly worthwhile to have a thoughtful look at this phenomenon from someone who has obviously put a great deal of concentrated thought into the matter, who expresses his ideas well, bringing a sense of intellectual weight to a topic we may have thought about casually before dismissing it from our minds.

The second essay - I say “essay”, not “chapter”, as there is little to tie them all together; it’s really a collection of four essays - looks at Dylan in the movies. This is not a comprehensive look at all of Dylan’s screen roles; don’t expect tales of “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid”. Instead, Yaffe looks at the way Dylan is portrayed in specific documentaries (most notably “The Last Waltz”), and dramas (“I’m Not There”, “Masked and Anonymous”), plus “Renaldo and Clara”, which I’ve never seen, but which would seem to be somewhere in between truth and fiction. Yaffe is less concerned with Dylan’s performances as musician or actor - though these aspects do figure into the discussion - as he is with what these films tell us about Bob Dylan the Man, Bob Dylan the Changing Persona, Bob Dylan the Artist. From a strictly personal viewpoint, I feel I learned more from this essay than the others, because this is an area of Dylanology with which I happen to be less familiar. I feel I now have enough of a handle on “Masked and Anonymous”, as to warrant pulling out the DVD for another look. So for me, Yaffe did exactly what he set out to do.

The third essay might be considered controversial to many people, as discussions of racial matters often are, particularly when the subject is the “blackness” of a white person. Not only do we get the expected look at blues influences on Dylan’s music and lyrics, as well as his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement (also covered in the Sawyers book). These we know about. But we also get to know perhaps more than we really want to know about Dylan’s sexual exploits with black women, particularly gospel-style backup singers. Elsewhere, we’ve seen plenty of discussions of Dylan the Christian and Dylan the Jew. Now we get to see the Bob Dylan who thinks he’s black. I can’t say I buy into all of Yaffe’s arguments here, yet it’s the one time in the book I come close to being truly surprised by what I was reading.

The last chapter is the most entertaining and thought-provoking to me, because it deals with Bob Dylan the plagiarist. This is a topic we have all become familiar with in recent years, but it’s good to have all the “gory details” of what Dylan stole from what source, all presented compactly in one place. Of course, in the early days of his career, Dylan was simply following the lead of his role model, Woody Guthrie, plus A. P. Carter, Robert Johnson, and virtually every folk and blues performer who lived previous to and during the early 1960’s, by engaging in the “folk process”. There was no copyrighting of folk songs in the days before music became an Industry, but there was a lot of community sharing of musical and lyrical concepts. New lyrics would be set to older melodies (“Star Spangled Banner”, anyone?), new melodies would be written or adapted to previously-existing sets of lyrics, so-called “floating verses” would appear in song after song, to the point where it’s generally (not necessarily always) impossible to know who wrote what, or who did the “original version”. So, we’ll give Dylan a pass on being a part of the time-honored folk-process tradition, though from a purely legalistic viewpoint, it is, as a matter of fact, plagiarism. But when the mature, copyright-conscious, no-longer-part-of-the-folk-tradition (or is he?) Bob Dylan starts pilfering whole passages from other people’s creative works, both copyrighted and public domain, without giving due credit to the originators, both in his autobiography and his recent songs, is it still forgivable? It would seem the media, after making a major fuss about these thefts when they were initially revealed, has pretty much forgotten about them. But Yaffe gives us the details for us to ponder. He has his opinion, I have mine, which doesn’t necessarily agree with his, and I invite you to read this fourth essay to form your own opinion. You may surprise yourself after you decide not to throw the book at Dylan after all!

In any case, this is a Dylan book well worth reading, even if I feel the blurb-writers were a bit hysterical in over-praising it. Whereas Sawyers’ book may appeal more to the non-specialist in Dylan, those who take their Dylanology seriously will benefit from reading and thinking about the Yaffe work.

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