Bob Dylan Lives (and Greil Marcus is Still Writing About Him)

Image by Brett Jordan.

Some people really don’t like Bob Dylan. They look for reasons and find them in his voice, his mercurial politics and what some interpret as his contempt for his audience. Others think he can do no wrong. Their eyes refuse to see his human flaws and suffer no criticism of their god. Greil Marcus, on the other hand, opens up Dylan’s songs and reveals phantasms and realities often missed or ignored by both of the aforementioned extremes. Histories of all kinds are explored; their roots and branches exposed in ways tangible and otherwise. Marcus seems to operate from the perspective that, like any top-notch wordsmith, Bob Dylan’s words manifest multiple meanings, imply duplicitous deceptions and speak the truth; a truth understood in as many ways as the meanings it comes from.

Nominally about seven songs, Marcus’s newest title Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, is actually about a hell of a lot more. Beginning the text with 1963’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and ending with 2020’s “Murder Most Foul,” Marcus takes the reader back and forth in a river of time, bouncing from the 1960s to the aughts and with stops at different points upon the shore. In between the hopeful questions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a time that some consider innocent and the dark, occasionally sarcastic and thoughtful epic that is “Murder Most Foul,” the text explores four more songs by Dylan and one Australian folk song (“Jim Jones”) that Marcus convincingly argues Dylan makes his own.

Each song serves a certain role in the chapter bearing its title. Sometimes the chapter is primarily about the song; its origins, its lyrical and musical development, and its performance. Other times, the song in the title is little more than a springboard to a cultural history that might include the president of the United States or a folksinger hooked on speed.

In his discussion, Marcus brings old songs back from their shadows in the graveyard. Sometimes, he even resurrects a voice, a singer, a person one heard long ago and forgot almost all about. Folksinger Karen Dalton, who comes back to life in Marcus’s essay on Dylan’s version of the song “Jim Jones,” her voice taking one into a pain so real it can’t end short of death, is one such artist. Then he’s writing about a 1970 movie called Wanda about a woman who took no easy paths in her quest for freedom—a harder, lumpen version of working class Alice in the 1974 Ellen Burstyn vehicle Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In doing so, he summons the feminist movement of the 1970s and a woman’s life in a patriarchy that not only had no respect for women but still refuses to die the death it was assigned back then.

In 2005, I wrote this about the writing of Greil Marcus: “Marcus writes criticism like Bob Dylan writes songs. The stories start out small. Maybe they’re about a romance or maybe they’re about a circumstance. By the time the Dylan song is over, it’s about the psyche of the nation or the universal cry of love.” By the time Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs is finished, the reader realizes that they know more about those songs than they probably did before and maybe more than they ever believed there was to know. More importantly, they realize they know more about the human experience than they did before. That, and there’s a whole new list of songs to listen to; songs Marcus refers to, reveals and immortalizes in a manner very few do. Maybe in a manner very few can.

I titled this review Bob Dylan Lives because like all of us, he won’t live forever. In his consideration of Dylan’s meditation on the JFK assassination, the United States and so much more in “Murder Most Foul,” Marcus refers to the fact that it was released days before the US began to shut down in reaction to the COVID pandemic. Marcus even ends his book by wondering what Bob Dylan will leave us when his body ends its stay on earth. Of course, the answer is all too obvious. As someone who has devoted thousands and thousands of words to exploring and explaining his understanding of them, Marcus knows that Dylan will be leaving his songs. When all is said and done, one hopes something of Marcus’s conversations about those songs also remains.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.