Archive for the ‘The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan’ Category

New Dylan Studies textbook: adequate, good in parts, grade B-

May 29, 2009

The new Dylan Studies textbook, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, is good in parts. While the book’s aim – to showcase the range of thinking about Dylan’s art – is admirable, its execution is only partly so. As you’d expect from a book by almost twenty academics and writers, it’s uneven.

Editor Kevin Dettmar’s Introduction is a wide-ranging survey of the field of DylanLit. But, even here, I found myself challenging basic premises: according to Dettmar, “Dylan’s is arguably the most important canon in all of twentieth century American popular music”.

Arguably? Who would argue otherwise? Dettmar could safely delete “arguably”, “American” and “popular” and his assessment might still undervalue Dylan’s art. And the Editor’s depiction of Dylan’s voice as “unlovely”, the voice of a “crow”, rather than a nightingale, also raises questions.

The book is split into two parts. The first, Perspectives, has nine short thematic chapters. David Yaffe’s location of Dylan in the poetic tradition, particularly his detailing of Zim’s debt to Ovid, is a key piece. Anthony Decurtis is engaging on Dylan’s songwriting.

Lee Marshall is perceptive on Dylan Studies, warning against treating him merely as a lyricist – the music and vocal performances are also important. But Marshall’s assertion that you can’t study high and popular culture in the same terms makes me slightly uneasy: it’s perfectly feasible to compare and contrast, say, Puccini and the Everly Brothers.

The fourteen-page piece on religion has some insights, but I’d have welcomed more. Few of the other thematic chapters ring bells in this parish. Wild horses couldn’t persuade me to read the chapter on Dylan and gender politics, though I wouldn’t expect many in the book’s fresh-faced, right-on audience to share my prejudice.

Part 2 reviews eight “landmark” albums. The book would have been better doubling the thematic coverage, instead. Dylan’s catalogue has already been reviewed to death and these new pieces add little to the mountain of press and fan evaluations. Except, that is, the essays on “Love And Theft” and Highway 61 Revisited. They’re both insightful, rapping on the magnitude of Dylan’s achievement.

Having graduated from the academy well before deconstruction, structuralism and the like took root, I was disappointed not to find a detailed, readable assessment of Dylan’s art filtered through the Post-Modernist lens. I suspect that PoMo academia has much to offer the seeker after Dylan Truth.

As is traditional in books about Dylan, you encounter erroneous rock-ist clichés – “first to release a themed album”; “first pop writer with grown-up lyrics”: er, no – in both cases. (I didn’t come across their sibling, the hoary claim that Dylan was the first musician to be bootlegged, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it.)

The sub-editorial rigour you expect from a CUP book is fitful – for example, we encounter a Martin “Scorcese”, and find Dave Van Ronk in “Mcdougal” Street. If the book emanated from a Squirrel Press of Nether Wapping, it wouldn’t matter much, but it’s published by one of the world’s great university presses. Time to reassess the “Cambridge” brand?

Dylan’s great body of art can withstand rigorous, high-minded scrutiny, placing him in the wider flow of both high and popular culture: I much prefer BobLit by intellectuals with writing skills to the musings of brain-lite rock hacks. But earlier, admittedly more extensive, academic studies by profs such as Ricks, Marshall and Negus are not matched by The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.

For a Dylan book to have lasting value, it needs to enrich our understanding of the man’s work – as creative artist, songwriter, thinker, performing musician and curator of American music. The Cambridge book does it intermittently, but not enough.

So, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan achieves a grade of B-. It’s adequate, good in parts, but it needs more analysis and less narrative.

Gerry Smith