The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to … Bob Dylan

I was thrilled to learn this morning that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although it’s a lifetime achievement award, he could have won 50 years ago just for “Visions of Johanna.”

I also hope his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One” is part of his Nobel portfolio. It is a stunning work that tells the largely fictional tale of a character named Bob Dylan. As Dylan once said, quoting Rimbaud, “I is another.”

Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial. Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile.

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Happy 70th birthday, Bob Dylan

He means more to me now than ever. And who would have thought 25 years ago that he’d be so vital and productive in his 50s and 60s?

Was the moon landing faked, too?

What do global-warming deniers have in common with creationists? More than you might think. They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five.

Dylan at twilight

Dylan meets the Obamas (White House photo; click on image for larger size)

There are so many Bob Dylans that I don’t want to read too much into this. For all we know, Dylan will hit the road with Pearl Jam next year and play a couple hundred hard-rock shows. But two lovely videos suggest that he is settling into the twilight of his career following his unexpected triumphs of the past dozen or so years.

I’ll deal with the better-known example first: his recent performance at the White House of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Backed by just Tony Garnier on upright bass and pianist Patrick Warren, Dylan offers an interesting contrast. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his guitar (in fact, he’s spent most of his time on stage in recent years randomly stabbing at an electronic keyboard), and he stops and starts several times. Yet he’s right on top of it vocally, singing a downbeat version of what was once a confident anthem. It bears repeated viewing — and listening.

The second is a live-in-the-studio version of Woodie Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” (it’s the second video here). Dylan plays guitar, accompanied by Ry Cooder on electric guitar and Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, of all people, on piano. As with the White House performance, Dylan’s singing combines his characteristic ragged edges with a softness and sweetness that I’ve rarely heard from him before.

I’m struck by what an effective, evocative singer Dylan can still be when his quiet rasp isn’t being overwhelmed by a full band. I’m also struck by the humility of these performances. The elderly-Western-gunslinger persona that he adopted during the past decade has been replaced by something more natural, more human.

None of us knows how much Dylan’s got left to give. His collaboration last year with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter, “Together Through Life,” was fun, but hardly up to his recent standards. His Christmas album was largely a joke, though I like the video for “Must Be Santa.” He is 68 years old and has a lot of miles on his odometer.

But he’s still capable of surprising us — and moving us.

Dylan’s first-rate second-rate album

I’ve listened to Bob Dylan’s latest CD, “Together Through Life,” a number of times now, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The assessment that rings truest to me is this: at the age of 67, Dylan has, for the first time in his long career, succeeded in making a terrific second-rate album.

What I mean is that nearly every album Dylan’s ever made has been a masterpiece or close to it; an attempted masterpiece that falls short in some important way; or an utter embarrassment. The stakes are always high, and usually too high. On “Together Through Life,” by contrast, it sounds like he went into the studio to have fun and managed to convey that sense of fun to us listeners. Not that it’s going to be everyone’s idea of a good time — some of the lyrics are pretty dark. What matters is that nothing here is weighed down by any deep sense of portentous meaningfulness.

Dylan accomplished that mainly by collaborating with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter on all but one song. There’s nothing like offloading the lyrical load to remove the weight of critics’ poring over Dylan’s words to try to figure out what he’s trying to say. (Not to mention tracking down his sources for evidence of what might be called over-enthusiastic borrowing.)

Everyone’s been obsessing over the Bruce Davidson cover shot. I’ve chosen instead to include the back cover, by Josef Koudelka, because it looks exactly like “Together Through Life” sounds — like a rough Tex-Mex band whose lead instrument, incongruously enough, is an accordian. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an old-fashioned blues with an accordian as prominent as it is on “My Wife’s Home Town,” a creepy, ancient-sounding song that — despite the Willie Dixon credit — could be a lost Howlin’ Wolf track.

Straight-ahead, uptempo songs like “If You Ever Go to Houston,” “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama” give Dylan some good new live material. The slow ones? Well, let’s just say there’s no “Nettie Moore” or “Red River Shore” here. The slow songs, especially the Hunter-less “This Dream of You,” mainly serve as mood music.

And can we please stop obsessing over Dylan’s voice? Yes, it’s shot, and it has been for quite some time. But vocal qualities aside, the man is one of the great singers in the history of rock and roll, with unmatched phrasing and urgency. His singing is one of the main pleasures of listening to his new album.

I don’t know how much I’ll be listening to “Together Through Life” six months from now. The album doesn’t rank with his comeback trilogy of the past decade (“Time Out of Mind,” “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times”), but it’s not intended to.

It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. I’d give it three and a half stars out of five.

Dylan goes Tex-Mex

I’m very excited about this. After Bob Dylan wrapped up his comeback trilogy in 2006 with “Modern Times,” I figured that would be just about it. He’s 67 now, and he’s more than proved his point.

Except that Dylan apparently never thought of it as a trilogy. He’s got a new album of original material, “Together Through Life,” coming out next month, supposedly with a Tex-Mex flavor. (I’ll assume he’s not going to revisit the hilarious accent he unveiled on “Romance in Durango.”) Zimmy says he’s aiming for something different this time:

I think we milked it all we could on that last record and then some. We squeezed the cow dry. All the “Modern Times” songs were written and performed in the widest range possible so they had a little bit of everything. These new songs have more of a romantic edge.

Joel Brown pointed me to this Rolling Stone piece, which describes “Together Through Life” as having “the live-in-the-studio feel of Dylan’s last two studio records, 2001’s ‘Love and Theft’ and 2006’s ‘Modern Times,’ but with a seductive border-cafe feel (courtesy of the accordion on every track) and an emphasis on struggling-love songs.”

I can’t wait.

Last night I was listening to “Tell Tale Signs,” Dylan’s recent collection of outtakes, mainly from the trilogy and 1989’s “Oh Mercy.” It strikes me that Dylan’s so-called comeback is now 20 years old — that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that he staggered around for decades, he actually rediscovered his gift in his late 40s, and has been kicking ass pretty much ever since, with just one turkey (“Under the Red Sky,” 1990) in all those years.

Yes, “Time Out of Mind” (1998), as good as anything he’s ever done, signaled to the wider public that he was back. But if you look at his actual output, you’d have to say that he’s been on top of his game for a long time.

The wonderfulness of “Astral Weeks”

I was excited about the new live version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” until I saw this video of him mumbling through “Sweet Thing” at the Hollywood Bowl. The huge band he’s assembled is terrific. Morrison, not so much. Nor does this New York Times review hold out much hope.

Though I’m not a big Morrison fan and have never seen him live, I love “Astral Weeks.” As I suspect is the case with many people, I came to it well into adulthood — it was never on the radio, either then or now, and Morrison’s numerous top-40 hits didn’t appeal to me all that much. When I finally decided to find out why critics had been raving about it for all those years, I was mesmerized.

Last Friday I listened to it straight through while driving home, the first time I’d done that in a while. What a strange, wonderful piece of work. Morrison is at his peak, both in his singing and his writing. Is it possible that he was just 23 when he recorded it? I’d listen to it just for Richard Davis’ otherworldly bass-playing. Pressed to name a favorite song (not that these are really songs), I’d probably say “Cypress Avenue.” But that’s subject to change.

Trouble is, Morrison has had a reputation for years — maybe decades? — of indifference when it comes to performing live. Don Imus scored a rare interview with Morrison last week, but didn’t succeed in drawing him out of his shell. Far better is this NPR piece, broadcast on Saturday, on the significance of “Astral Weeks.”

Bob Dylan is often lumped with Morrison in delivering uninspired, even belligerently awful live performances. But when Dylan’s engaged, he is as compelling as he’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, check out this riveting video of Bob and the boys performing the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (Steve Greenlee will have to take my word for it, I guess.)

Does Morrison ever rise to such heights anymore? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that if you don’t have “Astral Weeks” in your collection, you should rectify that as quickly as possible. You will be entranced and amazed.

Hattie Carroll’s killer finally dies

William Zantzinger, the subject of Bob Dylan’s song “The Lonely Death of Hattie Carroll,” has died at the age of 69. A truly miserable human being, Zantzinger was caught — many years after caning Ms. Carroll to death — collecting rent from black families who lived in shanties he didn’t even own.

John Donne was wrong.