Dylan the Postmodernist?

I had originally thought that I wasn’t going to write much about Modern Times. I was wrong. What started out as a short, indignant review of the musical borrowings on the album, was then followed up by a somewhat longer discussion of the lyrical borrowings from H. Timrod, which I have now wrapped up in a longish piece which traverses the death of the author, copyright laws, various connections between ethics and aesthetics, oh yes, and Dylan’s later work. The last piece has so much significant use of italics that I don’t dare to let it out in a plain-html version, so you will have to download a pdf file. I’ve made it available in two versions: one with only the article itself, the other bundled with the two previous texts (both links go to pdf files).

10 thoughts on “Dylan the Postmodernist?

  1. While I’ve enjoyed reading your notes, and the comments of others, I have to take issue with the opening salvo of your commentary on this issue :

    “The question is not so much: “Is this a good Dylan album?” – which it is – as “Is this a Dylan album?” – which it isn’t.”

    I find that to be a ridiculous conclusion which undercuts the many worthwhile things you have to say on the issue. Of course it’s a Dylan album! Even if it was an album of all covers it would still be “a Dylan album”. “World Gone Wrong” happens to be one of my favourite Dylan albums.

    Two simple questions, and please excuse the lack of verbosity :

    How is what Dylan did different, objectively, to what Muddy Waters did? The matter of “quality” is subjective, as is an opinion of whether anything has been “added”.

    What do you think of the credits for ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin” and ‘Someday Baby’ on the R. L. Burnside album “A Bothered Mind” and how does it differ from your opinion of what Dylan has done on Modern Times?

  2. Of course the opening salvo is ridiculous – it\’s meant to be. It\’s not a conclusion, it\’s way of setting the stage for indignation, and directed against the \”All songs BY Bob Dylan\”, not, of course, to be taken literally.
    To your questions:
    1. Dylan vs. Muddy: since I don\’t know for sure what either Dylan or Muddy did, I can\’t answer, but Dylan has taken credits for something where only the text is his own making; as for Muddy, I haven\’t heard any previous versions which correspond THAT closely to his version as Dylan\’s does to Muddy\’s. Then again, this is not a Muddy blog.
    2. I haven\’t heard it, nor read the credits, so I can\’t answer, other than that different genres have different written and unwritten rules (although they all are governed by copyright law, which is not my primary concern).
    I don\’t know if the implicit question you\’re asking is: how can you condemn Dylan for doing what many others do? Well, I can…

  3. I think you’re only modifying what I wrote on the main site’s front page on Aug 22 :-)
    But since you’ve made substantial changes, it counts as allusion, so I won’t sue you.

  4. Issues of intellectual property and artistic integrity aside, I am interested in your discussion of the possible ‘message(s)’ implicit in ‘Dylan’s’ recent, possibly more straightforwardly postmodernist, works. You seem to be especially worried about Dylan the ‘meaning nihilist’, even though you also say that you both “hope and think” that it is not likely that this is what Dylan is up to. I agree that it is not likely, and your own exposition of the ethical conundrums of Modern Times shows why. You mention that your response to “When the Deal Goes Down” is not going to be affected by whatever horror stories might emerge regarding the actual writing of those lyrics, and I would say the same for the album as a whole. The reason I think this is so is that the ‘message’ of the song, and of the album, is not to be found by analyzing the lyrics, endless research into the sources of said lyrics (however interesting and diverting this might be), seeing clever codes embedded in the packaging of the album, or by playing the record backwards to search for hymns to Satan. The message I hear is in the songs as played and sung, just as it always has been for Dylan. No matter how much I learn about Dylan’s various pilferings, or his postmodernist obsessions, “Nettie More” will sound to me like the voice of a sorrowing and spiritually lost human being, “Rollin’ and Tumblin” will burn with defiance and the distant promise of spiritual renewal, and “When the Deal Goes Down” will be a prayer at twilight. It doesn’t matter at all how much all of this reflects the man Bob Dylan’s current state of mind, or that he stole it all from the garbage cans of Timrod and Ovid. And this, to my mind, shows Dylan to be something other than a Warhol acolyte or a formerly brilliant lyricist grasping at straws. Dylan will never be Duchamp. His postmodernism, if it is such, is more akin to that of John Coltrane than John Cage. It is, to borrow some terminology from Martha Bayles’ provocative Hole in Our Soul, ‘extroverted’ postmodernism, a postmodernism that, unlike that of Duchamp and Warhol, is expressed in works that are both perfectly accessible to a wide audience and generous of spirit. If anything, the Dylan of the 21st century is less a nihilist than was the Dylan of the 60s. The proof is in the music.

  5. With all due respect, and even more, I have to disagree with the harsh and often unrelenting critisism of Modern Times. It is miles ahead of Love And Theft, which, in my opinion, was doomed before it left the studio, yet right along side Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, my favorite Dylan album.

    I THINK WE’RE FORGETTING THE MUSIC… After all, isn’t that what “they”(Anybody) went into it for?

    Listen to the album! The bass is explosive to say the least! And isn’t that what Modern TImes music is all about?… The beat; the bass; the thump? This album gives ya the whole package without the bagage… It’s got to be close to DYLAN’S BEST ALBUM EVER!!! No joke. I’m serious.


    I don’t care, really, which parts of the album are 100% created and which partes aren’t. True Dylan fans will feel the same way. There are lines in the album that will live well past Dylan, whether their his or not.


    With the second example (My favorite place is a sweet memory) it doesn’t matter who says it, we know what thet means and felt it’s meaning when it hit our ears. Only TRUE Dylan fans, not the Blood On The Tracks crowd, could SEE and FEEL what Dyaln was refering to when he spoke those lines. He wasn’t trying to build another Highway 61, he was trying to build a bridge into your memory… you pain… you sorrow…

    To think that Dylan just sits on a tour bus and reads a head full of words and fiures how he can switch them around into HIS kind of thoughts is stupid and assanine. Anyone who thinks that should read Chronicles. It is there that Dylan TRULY exposes his gift for writing. While the book may play more like a lost JD Salinger novel, it shows his ability to write and have fun doing it.

    On behalf of all the Dylan fans who love this album and love Dylan’s work…STOP!!!



  6. Thank you, Brock! I just read your post. I had been composing and posting another…so, not only “Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory,” and later the sentiment: “But you I’ll remember always…You’ve wounded me with your words…It’s all true, everything you heard.”

    I have been studying Pali texts and at this intersection, there is: Sorrow, impermanence and NoSelf.

  7. And the strange line from “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”
    Well a childish dream is a deathless need

    takes everything, including its strangeness, from Timrod, who says:
    A childish dream is now a deathless need
    (“A Vision of Poesy, Part 1”)

    let’s see. “well a childish…” and “…is now a deathless need”

    we could have “well, a child is now a deathless need”

    but, not playing anymore we have “A childish dream is now a deathless need”.

    the IS NOW constitutes the whole thing as citation, then not plagiarism.

    My memories are drowning
    In mortal bliss
    (“Beyond the Horizon”)

    says something quite different than Timrod’s
    Which drowned the memories of the time
    In a merely mortal bliss!
    (“Our Willie”)

    [he] which[who] drowned the memories of the time
    in a MERELY mortal bliss.

    it is just normal textual upbringing. if it has a supra-significance, it stays tuned , it just playing the harmonica crossed.

    but for a last point, why do we not consider it all quoting and be happy about the shared references with a cut&paste-also dylan?

  8. I must say that as a recent and huge Dylan fan of about 6 months (don’t laugh), I have absorbed and swallowed just about everything he’s done and am I full!!!!
    I think, because of my recent ‘conversion’ to Dylan, and my occupation as a poet/songwriter, I am in a better position to be objective. So here’s how I see it:
    Bob said in Chronicles that he felt Woodie Guthrie intimating to him “I’m going away but I’m handing the job over to you. I know you can handle it” or words to that effect.

    Bob has always – like any great musician/writer etc – seen himself as part of a tradition, a link in the chain, a continuation of a songline. That’s how all us songwriters see ourselves, even though we are nowhere near as brilliant as Dylan!

    Bob also said that not many people will really ‘get’ what he’s been doing till long after he’s gone. Bob has a job to do, a purpose, to carry on the legacy of those before him. He’s a knight to the rescue, a mirror of humanity, and has even referred to the ‘gallantry’ of his lyrics as something that has failed to be replicated by others!

    Who can copy Dylan? Many have tried and sounded lame, derivative and uninspiring. No wonder some are jealous! For my two cents, Modern Times is far superior to Love and Theft. To these young ears L&T just washes over me and leaves little behind of substance, while Modern Times is still ringing in my brain – the spirit, the theme, every line and melody, but most importantly, the message: a pre-apocalyptic, prophetic dissection of modern life. Like T.S . Eliot, whose “Waste Land” was a dissection of ‘modern’ values and how they rang empty and shallow when compared with the truth of Divine love, Dylan is working the same ground. He’s doing a job, my friends, a job he feels ‘destined’ to have started with a slightly nihlistic demeanour and is now completing in spirit of giving, hope and certainty.

    “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
    2 Timothy 2:15

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