Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Seth Rogovoy -- Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
By Seth Rogovoy
(This review is from the February 22, 2010 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)
Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, unquestionably among the greatest and most influential songwriter-performers of all time, has been the subject of seemingly countless numbers of biographies and book-length analyses over the past 40 years. These books have covered his life and music from myriad angles – I know, I’ve read a bunch of them of them.
But Seth Rogovoy’s Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet is the first book that examines Dylan’s life and music with a perspective that encompasses his Jewish upbringing, the influence of Jewish texts on his songwriting, and his sometimes confusing and contradictory relationship with Judaism and religious practice. According to Rogovoy, “Consciously or not, Bob Dylan has in large part adopted the modes of Jewish prophetic discourse as one of his primary means of communication, determining the content of his songs, the style of delivery, and his relationship to his audience.”
Young Bobby Zimmerman grew up in Minnesota, first in Duluth, then in the small town of Hibbing, where he was in close contact with his Yiddish-speaking grandparents, where he attended Hebrew school at an Orthodox synagogue, Agudath Achim, and where his mother and father were presidents of her Hadassah and his B’nai Brith chapters. He also spent five summers in the 1950s at Camp Herzl, a religious Zionist camp in Wisconsin. Rogovoy makes the case that, in addition to the rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country and folk music that fascinated him, Dylan’s Jewish upbringing had a significant impact on his canon of songs.
There are some Dylan songs in which the Jewish influence is obvious. The opening scene in “Highway 61 Revisited” is a modernized version of the biblical story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But Rogovoy points out that there are many more songs in which the Jewish influence is pervasive but not necessarily obvious. While “All Along the Watchtower,” famously covered by Jimi Hendrix, for example, has often been (mis)interpreted as oblique musings, Rogovoy convincingly shows that the lyrics are a midrashic paraphrasing of Isaiah 21:4-9.
There are many other examples. Rogovoy points out that key passages in “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of the early songs that established Dylan’s reputation as the ‘voice of his generation,’ a designation he came to quickly reject even if his growing legions of fans didn’t, were based on verses from Ezekiel, Isaiah and Genesis, while “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” he points out, recasts phrases from Leviticus as if they were being spoken by a prophet on behalf of God.
As an artist, Dylan has gone through any number of periods in the almost-five decades that he’s been an important songwriter. Certainly, the most perplexing period for his Jewish fans was from 1979 to 1981 or ’82 when he embraced evangelical Christianity. Rogovoy devotes a long chapter to this period arguing that the album Slow Train Coming, the first and most popular of Dylan’s Christian albums, “is as noteworthy for its lack of Christian material as it is for any blatant references to Jesus.” The album’s hit song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” writes Rogovoy, “fits comfortably within a Jewish worldview in which mankind’s utmost duty is seen as serving God.”
While Dylan’s embrace of Christianity was well known and publicized through recordings and concerts devoted exclusively to songs from that period, his return to Judaism, circa 1982 or ’83, was not overtly publicized. Rogovoy describes how Dylan’s return was engineered by his concerned mother and a still-observant boyhood friend, and through a year of study with a Lubavitcher rabbi in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (To this day there are semi-regular Dylan sightings, particularly around the High Holidays, at Chabad centres in places Dylan happens to find himself.)
And, of course, the book abounds with many examples of songs from his post-Christian period which Rogovoy is able to explain from a Jewish perspective. A scene in “Jokerman” describes tashlich, while another reflects David on the run from King Saul. “I and I,” which uses Rastafarian terminology, says Rogovoy, is a meditation on the relationship between God and Moses, while the unambiguous “Neighborhood Bully” is a “thinly veiled paean to Israel and Jewish peoplehood.”
Rogovoy’s analysis of the Jewishness of many of Dylan’s songs continues through to the 2009 album Together Through Life. What Rogovoy couldn’t have counted on was the curveball of a Christmas album Dylan released at about the same the book hit the stands.
Maybe Rogovoy will update the paperback edition of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet to point out that Dylan did the album as a food bank charity benefit (tzedakah) and that there’s a long tradition of Jewish artists who’ve done Christmas music. “White Christmas,” probably the most famous of all secular Christmas songs, was, after all written by the Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline).
Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet offers a fascinating perspective on Dylan and his songs. A basic familiarity with the songs is a probably a prerequisite to appreciating it.