Bob Dylan’s Nobel Achievement

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

old bob dylanby Seth Rogovoy

BOB DYLAN’S BEEN a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for many years, but I don’t think any of us really thought he’d ever win. Now that he has, the question remains, what’s left? He’s already won all the other awards – medals of honor and freedom from the American and French governments, Grammys, Oscars (he loves his Oscar so much he brings it with him on tour and places it onstage each night that he performs), a Pulitzer. Really, now that he’s won the Nobel, there’s nothing left for him to win.

Of course, Dylan isn’t in the award-winning business, which makes it all the more so surreal that he’s won everything. He started out as the anti-everything candidate, with an agenda to overturn the tables and disconnect the cables. And he succeeded in doing so, along the way alienating probably more people than he won over to his side. He didn’t even win his first Grammy Award until 1979, nineteen albums into his career (and that one, ironically, was for his vocals of all things – not his songwriting).

Ah, but those on his side included a huge swath of outsiders – writers, artists, poets, filmmakers, and, of course, musicians. His unique achievement – nearly impossible to replicate – was to blow up the songwriting form and recombine the pieces, scattering in elements of the Jewish prophets, Shakespeare, the great English poets, the Beats, the New York Times, movie dialogue, history books, old folk and blues icons, combine it with a twist and shout all his own, and presto, he came up with the most brilliant literature of the second half of the 20th century (and running over into the 21st). And ever since then, everyone has been trying to figure out, how did he do that? What did he do? What happened? And why do I love it so much that I’ll buy 16 CDs just to hear all the versions of the recordings that weren’t good enough to make it onto the finished albums?

Yes, it’s literature, and I’m not going to argue that point beyond saying that anyone who spends time “reading” Dylan closely understands that. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s some other thing. Something utterly sui generis, perhaps. So what? It combines thought and expression, using words and meter and line and melody and rhythm and call-and-response as tools of communication to say the most important things that anyone’s said about what it means to be living in our world, in our time.

Is the Bible literature? Not really. Is it the greatest – certainly the most influential – book ever written? Absolutely. Does Dylan’s work find its proper place in that tradition, where it can best be heard, read, studied, picked apart, and understood? Positively.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s worth a Nobel Prize.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).

Don’t Look Back: What to Expect When Bob Dylan Plays Tanglewood

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

old bob dylanby Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass.) – Consider yourselves warned. When you go to see Bob Dylan perform at Tanglewood on Saturday, July 2, (or at Forest Hills Stadium on July 8, or anywhere during his summer tour), you will be hearing almost no songs you associate with Bob Dylan. In fact, unless you’re a hardcore fan, you may only recognize one or two of the 20 songs he will probably play that night. All together, only four songs – 20 percent of the concert – were originally recorded by Dylan in the 20th century.

(SPOILER ALERT: What follows includes specific discussion of the songs Bob Dylan will likely sing at Tanglewood.)

If the set lists Dylan has been performing for the last couple of months are any indication – and while once upon a time, Dylan shook things up from night to night, these days he seems to be adhering closely to a set list that works for him night after night – the only “famous” Bob Dylan songs he will be playing are “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” Those are likely the only two songs the average music fan and casual Bob Dylan fan will know, and even then, they may be delivered in renditions bearing little to no resemblance to the originals or previous versions of the songs.

Here’s an overview of what concertgoers are likely to hear:

Over the course of two sets plus a two-song encore, for a total of 20 songs, fully 1/3 of the songs Dylan will sing are his renditions of pre-rock pop standards typically associated with Frank Sinatra and his ilk, recorded on Dylan’s two most recent albums, “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels.” Some of these seven songs are “Melancholy Mood,” “All or Nothing at All,” “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “Why Try to Change Me,” and “Autumn Leaves,” which will likely close the second set.

Fully one-quarter – five songs – of the set will be pulled from Dylan’s most recent album of original songs, “Tempest,” recorded in 2012 – interestingly enough, at Jackson Browne’s studio in Santa Monica (Browne just played Tanglewood last week). While “Tempest” garnered critical acclaim and commercial success, with time, much of that praise seems overheated, except perhaps for the song “Pay in Blood,” which Dylan will likely perform at Tanglewood, as well as “Duquesne Whistle,” “Long and Wasted Years,” “Scarlet Town” and “Early Roman Kings.” Those not familiar with “Tempest” who are heading to Saturday’s show may do well to give those songs a good listen to before then.

The concert will feature only two songs Dylan recorded in the 1960s – the aforementioned “Blowin’ in the Wind” (as an encore) and the lesser-known “She Belongs to Me,” whose opening line is often mistaken for the title as well as supplying one of Dylan’s best known catchphrases: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back.”

“Tangled Up in Blue,” from Dylan’s landmark “Blood on the Tracks” album, is the only song Dylan recorded in the 1970s that he will sing. Notably, Dylan sings no songs from his late 1970s/early 1980s “gospel” albums, nor does he sing anything from his 1989 “comeback” album, “Oh Mercy,” or anything else from that decade, for that matter.

The 1990s are represented by “Love Sick,” from his Grammy Award-winning 1997 comeback album, “Time Out of Mind,” and that’s it. He’ll play four songs from the aughties, including the Academy Award-winning number, “Things Have Changed” (from “Wonder Boys”), and one song each from 2001’s “Love and Theft” (“High Water”), 2006’s “Modern Times” (“Spirit on the Water” and 2009’s “Together Through Life” (“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”).

There’s hope for hearing some other Bob Dylan songs – Mavis Staples, who warms up the crowd for Dylan, typically sings some of his songs in her sets. But don’t expect any interaction between the two longtime friends and musical collaborators. Dylan doesn’t roll that way.

Also of note: Don’t expect Dylan to play guitar. He will mostly sing with microphone in hand, old-skool style. Maybe he’ll play some harmonica.

And finally – Dylan is wholly unpredictable. Lightning could strike and he could totally rewrite the history of Tour 2016 with an entirely new setlist for Tanglewood. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).


Bob Dylan to Return to Tanglewood in July Along with Mavis Staples

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

Bob Dylan(LENOX, Mass.) – According to the unofficial but always reliable Bob Dylan concert website BobLinks, legendary rock poet Bob Dylan will return to Tanglewood on Saturday, July 2 at 7pm, headlining a concert in the Koussevitzky Music Shed also featuring gospel/R&B legend Mavis Staples. The concert will mark the third time Dylan has played Tanglewood, where he made his debut in summer 1991 and performed again in 1997.

The date with Mavis Staples presages a U.S. summer tour by the two, who first met and performed together in the early 1960s when they played Civil Rights gatherings alongside each other. As the story goes, Dylan allegedly asked Staples’s father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, for her hand in marriage, and was turned down.

Bob Dylan’s recording career began with the release of his eponymous debut album on March 19, 1962. Since that time, he has revolutionized folk music and rock ‘n’ roll, influencing everyone from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to the Byrds, the Band, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, U2, Wilco, and the late David Bowie.

Dylan will be 75 years old when he performs at Tanglewood. His most recent album, last year’s “Shadows in the Night,” consisted entirely of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Dylan is said to have recently returned to Capitol Studios, where the album was recorded, to lay down tracks for a similar, follow-up album.

After decades of infrequent concert tours, Dylan fully committed himself to the road in summer 1988. Since that time, he has consistently played over 100 concert dates a year – more than anyone of his generation – on what has been called the “Never Ending Tour.”

After several albums produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples released “Livin’ on a High Note” just last month. The album, produced by rock songwriter M. Ward, features songs written specifically for Staples by Nick Cave, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), tUnE-yArds, Neko Case, Aloe Blacc, and others.





The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan Coming to Isabella Freedman on Dec 2, 2012

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

As part of the three-day retreat, “Blues for Challah: Second Set,” a “Grateful Dead Shabbaton” at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., Seth Rogovoy will present his multimedia program, “The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan,” based on his book, Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet, on Sunday, December 2, 2012, at 10:30 a.m.

Seth’s program explores the rich, hidden (and not-so-hidden) Jewish themes infusing the life and work of Bob Dylan. Through recorded and live music, video, slides, lyrics, and spoken word, Seth traces the influence Dylan’s Jewish upbringing and lifelong studies of Torah, Talmud and Jewish mysticism on such well-known songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Thunder on the Mountain.”

The Second Annual Grateful Dead Shabbaton at Isabella Freedman takes place on Friday, November 30 – Sunday, December 2, 2012. Registration information here.



Bob Dylan’s 10 Most Jewish Songs

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

by Seth Rogovoy

While Bob Dylan has, throughout his life and career, engaged in all sorts of mythologizing and playful biographical falsification, it has never been in the service of denying his heritage. While Dylan didn’t exactly grow up to be Shlomo Carlebach, the happy, guitar-strumming Hasid, he never strayed too far from his roots, nor did he deny them. One of his earliest original numbers, in fact, was a parody of “Hava Nagilah,” then and now (thank you, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman) probably the best-known Jewish song in the world. Throughout his career, his songs have been peppered with biblical allusions and paraphrases and informed by Jewish themes and concepts. How much of this is the result of a conscious effort on Dylan’s part to address these issues, and how much is simply the result of magpie tendencies that see him draw variously from Shakespeare, French symbolism, movie dialogue, blues clichés and even obscure Japanese yakuza novels? Well, only Dylan can answer that — and even then, probably not.

Still, based on the evidence of the songs themselves, Dylan was actually paying attention in the Hebrew classes leading up to his bar mitzvah, and also in his adult life, which has at times reportedly included private studies with various rabbis, often from the Chabad movement. A cursory review of songs from the past 50 years turns up many tunes that are inflected with varying degrees of Yiddishkeit.

Herein is an annotated list of the Bob Dylan’s 10 Most Jewish Songs: