U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“I Don’t Want To Fake You Out”: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History II (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: The following is our second review of Kathryn Lofton’s S-USIH Conference keynote address on Bob Dylan. It comes from Nicolette Gableis, a PhD candidate in the American Studies Program at the College of William and Mary.  She is currently working on a dissertation on the Decadent movement in America in the 1890s.  

In style alone the keynote address on Friday night was certainly the most invigorating academic talk that I have ever heard. The simple devices of using handouts, and planting audience members to help read quotations kept everyone’s attention. With the performance sense of a revival minister, and impeccable comic timing, Dr. Lofton set out to question the links we so blithely make between the authentic self, belief and action. Her subject was the inscrutable Bob Dylan. A wisely chosen topic if only because everyone, or at least I and everyone I know, has an opinion on who Dylan is or is not based entirely on his music and what it meant to them.

Dr. Lofton introduced her talk with a brief discussion of the ways in which we both disclaim belief as a subject of study and at the same time seek it out. Despite the warnings of William James and Wittgenstein, we are not content to merely observe belief in action, or to take people at their word, we must know what someone really believes. This raises the question of what exactly religious studies has to do with intellectual history. When we study ideas, are we actually asking who was really a Spencerian, what does the new right really believe, or what did Alfred Kazin really think? Part of what Dr. Lofton’s talk suggested to me is that we are all closer to studying religious belief than we might like to think and that considering that closeness might improve our work.

Moving to Dylan, Dr. Lofton laid out the three options for interpreting Dylan’s religious belief: first, to discern Dylan’s true religious identity (Jewish, Re-born Christian, etc.) and argue that his other positions are deceptions; second, to argue that he is a wanderer, the ultimate baby boomer, always searching spiritually; and third, to argue that he is essentially unknowable. Lofton’s argument is first, that our interpretations of Dylan tell us more about ourselves than they do about him, and secondly that we listen to what Dylan is actually saying. He resents being a prophet and so attempts to alienate people by publicizing a variety of religious positions while his actual belief has seemed to him at least, to be constant. This argument is, in its simplest form, the advice that my first mentor in intellectual history gave me: keep your eyes on the page. If you listen to the sources you won’t go too far astray. Dylan’s responses to reporters are often real attempts to express himself. As Dr. Lofton brought up in the beginning of her talk, this is also a radical questioning of the entire agenda of intellectual history. We, as historians, tend to treat ideas as realer than the people who have them, or we conflate the person and the idea. Though we know that belief is essentially ineffable and unprovable, we, both as a society and as historians are obsessed with somehow knowing it. We task ourselves with ferreting out what a person ‘actually’ believes as if this belief can be contained in a recognizable and coherent whole. We also naively assume that these beliefs then guide actions, though we have merely to look at ourselves to see the foolishness of that axiom.

The implications of the talk were troubling. Are we intellectual historians, like some crazed Dylan fan, searching through trash for scribbled upon scraps of paper, close reading liner notes, dissecting lyrics for arcane meanings, as our subjects somewhere sigh and roll their eyes? Are we caught, like Dylan scholars, in choosing between three equally unsatisfying solutions, or is there, as this talk suggested, another way? Can we believe in the reality, importance, and life of ideas themselves, while also acknowledging our inability to know for certain if they do or not exist in someone’s mind, or the effect that they have there?

It seems only fitting, if a little obvious, to end this with a Dylan quotation. So:

“You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent. And I’ve always said ‘Hang on to me baby and let’s hope that the roof stays on’” –Bob Dylan “Brownsville Girl”

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks much for this post.

    For me, one of the most salient points Lofton made (especially salient in a room full of people who, as you rightly note above, generally stick to the page) was to emphasize Dylan’s statement that the truth is in the music, in the songs — not the lyrics, not the arrangement, but the performance, the embodiment of ideas/beliefs/desires/feelings in sound and movement. It seems to me that this is what you’re getting at above with your closing quote.

    This claim of Dylan’s was, if I recall correctly, made in an interview. And I don’t recall now whether it was an interview for a print journal/newspaper (LA Times? Rolling Stone?) or for a documentary/broadcast. Either way, a scholar researching Dylan might be most likely to encounter such a statement, however it was originally made, in textual form — words printed on a page or on a screen.

    This is one of the ironies of historical inquiry — perhaps a maddening irony, perhaps a comforting one, or maybe both at the same time. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” And yet the letter — the written word — is usually the primary means by which we find life, and by which we give it. We seek the living among the dead, all the time — whether the dead are perished people, or just a perished moment (of whatever duration) from the fast-fleeing past. And the text, the letter, the written word is the primary means by which we bring the dead — past people, past times, past ideas, past mindsets — to life.

    As you note, Lofton’s homiletic performance was astonishing. And in lively buzz of discussion that followed the close of the Q&A, many of us remarked that there is just no way that the video is going to be able to capture the full sense — the sensation — of the moment. People will be able to watch the talk on video and follow Lofton’s address word for word. But so much will be missing.

    And I guess this is where our practice of relying on words on the page can offer a refuge, or a path into understanding. It is not possible to access unmediated “affect.” But it is possible — or at least we work as if it is! — to convey not just affect, but more than affect. It is possible to convey meaning — affect, experience not simply lived but interpreted — via (historical) narrative.

    I think that is our version of the music, the songs.

  2. Just a few housekeeping matters to correct the record:

    First, Dylan is not a baby boomer (born in 1941). Boomers are ,hose born between 1946-1963. Almost all of the other people who were there at the creation were not baby boomers either — Garcia, Lesh, Slick, Kesey, McGuinn, etc. They were born before or during the war.

    Second, Dylan co-wrote Brownsville Girl with playwright Sam Shepard. An earlier version of their collaboration was entitled New Danville Girl and can be found on the web with other outtakes from Infidels. Some believe Woody Guthrie’s Danville Girl served as a basis for the song.

  3. Great response/review to Kathryn’s talk, and I LD’s comment is provocative too. There is a worry always in taking ideas and people of the past seriously that we will take them too seriously, isn’t there? That the depth of meaning will suddenly dissolve, the belief will turn to betrayal, the rich gold to dross, the truth of the past–its wonder and mystery–to a series of mere fibs and dismaying fabulations. As another 60s singer-songwriter, one who greatly admired and imitated Dylan, Lou Reed (also, like Dylan, not a baby boomer but from that key cohort—Dave Hickey called them the “Freaks” in between the Beats and the Hippies), sang in perhaps his most famous song, “And I guess that I just don’t know.”

    That may be as profound a response to the historical past as any other one! Neither belief nor doubt but a kind of cultivation of sublime inadequacy in the face of it all and yet a triumph in the achievement of that knowledge. You say nihilism, I say Niebuhrism!

    I do wonder, as LD does, about the things that Dylan does not waver from in his own expressions of belief, and that is the vast body of traditional song that he has always stated locates him in a kind of trajectory of living in, through, and to music.

    I always love this “thin, wild mercury” quote of Dylan’s about traditional music as compared to “folk” music (from an interview with Nat Hentoff from 1966 in, hah!, Playboy Magazine):

    “As far as folk and folk-rock are concerned, it doesn’t matter what kind of nasty names people invent for the music. It could be called arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music. I don’t think that such a word as folk-rock has anything to do with it. And folk music is a word I can’t use. Folk music is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “I Love You, Porgy” – they’re not folk-music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact. I listen to the old ballads; but I wouldn’t go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall to think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try to own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. Everybody knows that I’m not a folk singer.”

    There’s a lot going on in that quote, including Dylan’s usual energy of seeking to mystify a bit, but I wonder if this points to a quality of his that is less about belief and more about seeking release from the dynamic of belief and doubt in something else: “I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact.”

    On that level, he seems to move from the Barnumesque humbug con man approach to something that calls to him, that he seeks to extend in his own art making: an effort to put meaning and meaningless in play, affectively and interpretively. This understanding and perspective on (and use of) traditional music is particularly intriguing for the historically minded, because it seeks to put in play ideas and attitudes (er, beliefs?!) across different temporalities (mixing ancient with contemporary, deep histories of premodern social life with immediate crises in contemporary private and public affairs). It asks whether the fragments of a certain kind of body of text and performance can serve as a basis for coping with life. Is it, in Kenneth Burke terms, a useful “equipment for living.”

    But this is not to contradict Kathryn’s talk, just to pivot to a different side of the story. She is interested in the interplay between Dylan and his obsessive fans (and by extension, maybe her topic in the end is as much obsession as belief, as much what captivates people as what they sink their faith into). There is indeed something so curious about the intensity of that drama that Dylan summons forth for so many people: is he cheating us, fooling us, who is he, what is his essence?

    But Dylan’s relationship to traditional music, how he locates his own performances in that body of knowledge—as much sonic as textual, full of inconclusivity that will simply have to do, bottomless and often shortcircuiting the wires of time, filled with shards and many-faceted jewels that the light glints off in endlessly variable ways—is a reminder that there is something perhaps below the pop culture Dylan dance of masks. Beyond the belief-doubt dialectic of “is he putting us on?” is something else: what flow of human experience and expression do his songs–performed, alive, mutating, living texts that rise from and return to a larger body of traditional music–put us in?

  4. “[Dylan] was really talking to you in some way that was not customary linear communication. There would be a phrase that would strike like a Rorschach, setting off a personal image that would start a whole crystallization of thinking and leave your head in a place it had never been before.”

    – Ken Kesey

    You pays your money (and you takes your chances), as the man says.
    Sometimes you get taken. Sometimes you find something right and true to hold onto. It’s all a part of life. Nothing is guaranteed. There’s always worry and there’s always hope. Sometimes it’s lemons and sometimes it’s cherries. But that’s what life is all about, that whole “sometimes the light’s all shining on me other times I can barely see.” You got to get one the ride, though. I know people will still be listening to Dylan decades from now and finally will have caught up with Kerouac.
    Freaks, heads, too young to be a beatnik too old to be a hippie, Kerouac as the bippie in the middle (I like that one!), hippies (thanks to Herb Caen, the man who likened the Jefferson Airplane to a mule kicking down a fence, for that one.) As Richard Farina said, you label something to dismiss it. So who needs labels?
    The 1966 Playboy interview is a gas, a giggle and at times one hell of a put on. Have you heard the original interview that was done before they ticked off Dylan with their editing and he went off the wall on them? Taco Pronto!
    Traditional music does figure large in Dylan’s career, life and myth and was the source of a career resurrection with Good As I’ve Been to You and World Gone Wrong. The “wild mercury sound” quote, however is from a 1978 Playboy interview conducted by Ron Rosenbaum and refers to Blonde on Blonde:
    “I always hear other instruments, how they should sound. The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time.”

    Some find in these remarks an indication of speed’s presence and influence on the album. Bob was at the time, a confessed heroin addict (to biographer Robert Shelton) and speed freak. One need only watch the scenes from his 1966 world tour in No Direction Home to see the truth of that or the opening snort of Eat the Document for that matter.

    He is on record as saying that at the time of Blonde On Blonde he was “going at a tremendous speed.” Bone-thin in ’66, Dylan had the giveaway look of a speed freak.
    For the past year, at least, he had sustained himself with what he euphemistically called “a lot of medicine,” which had left him whip thin, sharp-tempered, and hardly able to sit still.
    He and his music seemed to be the embodiment of what one writer called “the nearly unendurable torment of speed, buzzarama, that acrylic high, horrous, yodeling, repetitious echoes of an infinity so brutally harrowing that words cannot explain the devastation nor the tone of such a vicious nightmare.”

    And all built on a bed of traditional music and the new element of electricity.

    Given today’s music I understand why Dylan says he would be happy listening to nothing but Charley Patton.

    So there it is but still no answers to the questions that have been posed, which doesn’t diminish anything in the least.

    To join Little Richard!

  5. RC —

    That’s a nice Ken Kesey quote!

    Sorry about the confusion about the “thin, wild mercury” reference. I did not write it clearly, but I meant that the 1966 interview contains something of that same tone and…speed. But right, yes, it comes from a much later interview (though also in Playboy, that bible of the folk-rock revival!). A few other typos in my comment too, but it wouldn’t be a blog comment without them!

    I like your line “And all built on a bed of traditional music and the new element of electricity.” This seems crucial to Dylan’s art. How does this combination relate to Kathryn Lofton’s interest in Dylan as a way to explore the intersections of pop culture celebrity fandom and issues of belief (religious or profane) is an intriguing crossroads at which to linger–maybe not to sell our souls to the devil there, but to spend some time trying to understand the cultural and material factors at play in and around and through the Dylan mystique.

    Then again, as you suggest, if *we all* were just able to join Little Richard’s band alongside Bobby Zimmerman, that would cut through all this verbiage and get more to the point of the matter.

    In the meantime, there’s as much at stake here around what Dylan’s artistry and myths and performances of music and celebrity and disdainful hipster cool and sincere musical and cultural appreciation and love can tell us about history, religion, pop culture, audience and celebrity, belief and doubt, fandom and obsession as what we can learn about Dylan himself. How his actions, and the responses of his audiences (and his scholars) to his actions, can tell us something about the nature of religiosity and belief and obsession and doubt in secular, profane settings—I think this is what Kathryn Lofton was after in her talk. I am eager to see how she continues to develop these hunches that both Dylan’s work itself and the way in which he and his audiences correspond with each other over his many personae can shine a light on these larger matters.

  6. The quote is from an interview by Linda Gaboriau in the December 1972 issue of Crawdaddy. It’s entitled “Summing Up The ’60s, Sizing Up the ’70s.” We need more Americans like Kesey these days.
    No problem with the interview; I understand now what you were trying to say. And typos are no problem, believe me.
    In regard to:“ ‘And all built on a bed of traditional music and the new element of electricity.’ This seems crucial to Dylan’s art”:

    I think it’s crucial for Dylan’s art during 1964-66, those years in his career when the circus was in town and he moved on to psychedelic dandy’s blues from his work shirts and dungarees. Pre-Another Side the element of electricity holds little meaning for/in his work. While his new approach that brought a rock and roll attitude to traditional music may have been electrifying to some, neither the music nor he was electrified. Post-accident, the opposite is true of his work as much of the music may have been electric but it was no longer electrifying. The accident is the great divide in his life and work. In between was the light.

    While some of his post-accident work is good, it lacks something – some edge, some fire. He had reached Olympian heights and now he was looking at the downhill at the ripe old age of 25. (His opinion at the time was that he couldn’t make a better record than Blonde on Blonde.) Staying at those heights, however, would have meant death. He realized his fans weren’t worth that price and so he lit out for Woodstock and retreat and recovery.

    Something changed in Bob and his work after the accident (though the base of traditional music remained to be plundered, paraphrased, borrowed from, passed down, plagiarized, reworked and pilfered.) He told Ed Bradley in 2004 he could no longer write songs like he did in the early and mid ‘60s:

    “I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written,” says Dylan.

    “Try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time.”

    Does he think he can do it again today? No, says Dylan. “You can’t do something forever,” he says. “I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can’t do that.” (And he did it in coffee shops, clubs, diners, on the road, other people’s apartments and even on Wavy Gravy’s typewriter.)

    When talking about his time with Norman Raeben and the writing of the songs that became Blood on the Tracks, I think Dylan hit the nail on the head about the changes in his songwriting when he said he had to learn to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously. And there’s the crux of the matter.

    Dylan was once so intimately tied to the times that he seemed to be those times. This relationship, however, ended with Nashville Skyline, which Carl Oglesby saw as aligned with the New Left’s reaching out to America’s working and rural classes. Remember it was the time as well when Flatt and Scruggs took flight on the Nashville Airplane and that greatest of all Vietnam-related songs Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town.

    I seek the poetic truth of Dylan in my encounters and experiences with his art. Anything else exists in a separate realm and leads to the frustrations generally associated with dead ends. That’s not to say that other things can’t be gleaned from his work. For example, we can see that Dylan went electric at almost the very moment that Lyndon Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and escalating the war in the South. The increasing violence and intensity of Dylan’s work mirrored the expanding violence in the country. And that’s a good and valid observation and has value to those interested in those things. But it begins and ends there. Nothing was delivered in the end. As Elvis said to Scotty and Bill when the trio was making the music in Sun Studios that everyone else is still chasing: “That don’t move me fellas. Let’s get real real gone for a change.”

    The work of people like Ricks and Bowden yield even less than that. Knowing if Bob calls his god Allah, Buddha, Christ, Elvis or Clyde is immaterial to the truth I speak of as well.

    To each his or her own. Personally I’m strapping myself to a tree with roots.

    When you walk the streets you’ll have no cares
    If you walk the lines and not the squares
    As you go through life make this your goal
    Watch the donut, not the hole.

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