In a new essay in the Princeton University Press Ideas Blog, Zone author Timothy Hampton discusses Bob Dylan’s latest work from his recent album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Click here to learn more about Hampton’s book, Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work. Click here to read the full essay. An excerpt appears below:
“Dylan asks us to think about who we are, as individuals woven into a community. This same theme is approached from a different angle in the second song ‘False Prophet,’ a blues about the power of creativity. The narrator is an impressive character—part con-man, part magician—who makes grand claims for himself, dismissing enemies and wooing beautiful women. But no matter how threatening or exaggerated his claims, the song traces out an ethical path (a ‘rowdy way’) through a world of thieves. Instead of condemning or preaching at the corrupt figures around him (‘false-hearted judges,’ ‘masters of war’), as a younger Dylan might have done, his hero here simply knocks them into line with his own power: ‘I’ll marry you to a ball and chain,’ he says to one rival. Such is the power of the songwriter, who controls the story.
A repeated motif on this record is the idea that metaphors have power when they are taken literally. This, in effect, is the magic of art in life—fictions that are enacted. Dylan plays with this notion to shocking effect. So, to read the title of a song like ‘My Own Version of You’ we might expect a conventional tune about love and fantasy. There are many songs like this: ‘Got a lock of hair and a piece of bone/And made a walkin’, talkin’, honeycomb,’ sang Jimmie Rodgers in 1957. ‘Venus, make her fair/A lovely girl with sunlight in her hair,’ added Frankie Avalon in 1959. Yet here, as in ‘Multitudes,’ the conceit is literalized. The narrator of the song explains that he plans to construct a human being, like Doctor Frankenstein. His design makes it possible for him to evoke both the wonders and dangers of our fallen life, while offering a reflection on the role of the artist as creator.”