Bob Dylan has just released a new album, but I’m behind the times, and have only recently completed my review of his previous album, Modern Times (2006). Two years late, but here it is.
Flippantly, I might merely set down a single sentence to compose my judgment — “He’s still got it” — and leave it at that. More mischievously, I might merely quote the final verse of “Spirit on the Water,” one of this album’s finer selections:
You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time
— I could do either of these things, thereby render a useful review of the album, and spare the reader my further cogitations. But what fun would that be?
Over time I have come to associate Dylan and H. L. Mencken in my mind. Stop laughing and allow me to explain. Mencken, despite a well-earned reputation for brilliant polemics, was most proud of his scholarly work The American Language. Say what you will about his sneers and barbs at the follies of American life, in the end that book demonstrates beyond all doubt his love for his country. Mencken was a magnificent patriot on the subject of language, insisting on the independence and glory of “the American language.”
Then we have Bob Dylan, who may go down as one of the greatest 20th century practitioners of that language. Few have influenced a language as Bob Dylan influenced American of the late 20th century. Phrases from his songs, like Hobbits, have a way of turning up in the most unlikely of places. I’ll not soon forget when a rural North Carolina sheriff, in the midst of a press conference on a missing woman, likely murdered, reached for some way to convey his department’s perseverance in investigating the crime — and, stammering, settled on a Dylan quotation: “we’ve got to just keep on keepin’ on.” The man was not gifted at impromptu public speaking, but he did manage to convey his meaning. More recently, in a dissenting opinion, none other than Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court quoted (page 36) Dylan’s most famous song.
Furthermore, Dylan’s innovations in the American language — drawn, of course from idiolects as varied as the upper Midwest and the Deep South — track very nicely with Mencken’s appraisal of what makes the language great and unique. Observe.
After a careful and occasionally acerbic survey of the state of the literature on the distinctively American branch of the English tree, Mencken renders this judgment: “The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians. His politics bristles with pungent epithets; his whole history has been bedizened with tall talk; his fundamental institutions rest as much upon brilliant phrases as upon logical ideas. And in small things as in large he exercises continually an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into arresting parts of speech.” As an example, Mencken adduces the word rubberneck, which as a synonym for gawker or tourist, someone who cranes his neck grotesquely, really does show some flare.
This word is, according to him, “almost a complete treatise on American psychology; it reveals the national habit of mind more clearly than any labored inquiry could ever reveal it.” He continues, with the thrilled delight that is so infectious throughout his fine book: “The same qualities are in rough-house, water-wagon, near-silk, has-been, lame-duck and a thousand other such racy substantives, and in all the great stock of native verbs and adjectives. There is, indeed, but a shadowy boundary in these new coinages between the various parts of speech.” More examples: “Corral, borrowed from the Spanish, immediately becomes a verb and the father of an adjective. Bust, carved out of burst, erects itself into a noun. Bum, coming by way of an earlier bummer from the German bummler, becomes noun, adjective, verb and adverb.” And on and on it goes.
“American thus shows its character,” pronounces Mencken, “in a constant experimentation, a wide hospitality to novelty, a steady reaching out for new and vivid forms. No other tongue of modern times admits foreign words and phrases more readily; none is more careless of precedents; none shows a greater fecundity and originality of fancy.”
Now in a certain sense it would be impossible to demonstrate how neatly this description dovetails with Bob Dylan’s use of American. Songs are meant to be sung and heard, and only secondarily written about, if at all. So I am left merely (a) to assert my belief that when Mencken writes thusly of the American language, he describes Dylan’s lyrical art with remarkable accuracy; and (b) to sketch a suggestion of the evidence that would support it, relying on the interested reader’s knowledge of Dylan, or desire to gain that knowledge, to provide their own demonstration. The sketch will, naturally enough, be drawn mostly from the album under consideration here, Modern Times.
Consider, then, the quintessential American experimentation, “hospitality to novelty” and “fecundity and originality of fancy” in these lines:
And these bad luck women stick like glue
It's either one or the other or neither of the two (“Nettie Moore”)
Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church and I've said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows (“Thunder on the Mountain”)
When I was young, driving was my cravin’
You drive me so hard, almost to the grave
Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry po' me anymore (“Someday Baby”)
I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down (“When the Deal Goes Down”)
Bob Dylan has often excelled at narrative songs — vague and hazy stories of squalor, folly and crime, usually told first person. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” or “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” or even “I Shall be Free.” Frequently these narratives have evidenced a detectible regional character: they take place in, or move between, the Southwest, or the deep South, or the upper Midwest. The Blues Highway, from New Orleans to Minnesota, has been a fixture in a number of songs. They are so boldly and marvelously American, many of these songs! Mencken would not fail to discern it.
Perhaps an anecdotal argument will carry the point better. ‘Round about 1965, that era of discontent, Dylan went electric, thereby alienating many folk fans. Legend has it that once while in England, Dylan, accosted on stage by some hecklers, looked at them, and pronouncing, “You want folk music? — here’s some American folk music,” went into the guitar-heavy, hard blues song, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Something tells me the provocation was not lost on his antagonists:
Well, you look so pretty in it
Honey, can I jump on it sometime?
Yes, I just wanna see
If it's really that expensive kind
You know it balances on your head
Just like a mattress balances
On a bottle of wine
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Dylan would go on to hurl many scornful polemics at the generation with the mattress on its bottle of wine, the 1960s, as at many targets. Then, the bitterest cut; he would consummate his defiance of the 60s by releasing in the year 1968 an album of simple country songs, of sincerity and regret, which uttered hardly a word about war.
But I fancy what really turned him against the 60s was their anti-patriotism. They found America in a basic sense hateful. He could never accept that. Even as a Leftist Bob Dylan was a particularist, which is the first and most vital step in patriotism. He could never hate his particular native land. And when the system or philosophy of the 60s got done with its platitudes and abstractions and parties, it was going to destroy America. It may still yet. But the man who is sometimes foolishly said to have put this system to song, very certainly repudiated it. He repudiated it with the same sneers by which it was made. Now that, I venture, is experimentation, hospitality to novelty, and carelessness of precedent which Mencken could appreciate.
Two patriots: the scholar and the bard. Mencken, the elitist, unexpectedly found his love of democracy in the language of his native land. Dylan, meanwhile, demonstrated the democracy of his native land by his irrefragable love for her.
* * *
How else is Bob Dylan a true American in his songs and performances? It is, of course, the very thing that, however experimental, open to novelty and scornful of precedent it may in a given era appear, shall evermore antagonize enlightened society in the West: his quite plain grounding in religion, even Old Testament religion.
Nothing is less “cool” in urban fashionable and enlightened society than orthodox biblical religion. Nothing, therefore, so distressed, bewildered and annoyed the society which accumulated around Bob Dylan and his music, than his very public conversion to Christianity. But even then he could not be ignored. Only a fool (or someone narrow enough to judge only on the evangelism of its lyrics) could deny the greatness of, for instance, Slow Train Coming (1979).
Now and then an attentive reader will hear it reported that Dylan has repudiated his Christian faith. I recall reading it asserted that he, while still spiritual, professes no “organized religion.” Ah the platitudes of modern argot!
In truth the language of biblical Christianity has pervaded most of his lyrics — even before his public conversion. Let someone argue that “Gates of Eden” or “Shelter from the Storm” is innocent of Christian influence.
In Modern Times the influence is abundant, both open and subtle.
* * *
Here I have carried on at some length. I suppose frustrated or uninterested readers will have long abandoned the pursuit of so discursive a review. I shall conclude:
Bob Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times is a triumph. Alternately rousing and soothing, amusing and challenging, it is a consistent collection of songs to engage the attention, the admiration, even the awe of anyone who likes Dylan, or thinks that he may, someday baby