Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet

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9781416559153: Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
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Bob Dylan and his artistic accomplishments have been explored, examined, and dissected year in and year out for decades, and through almost every lens. Yet rarely has anyone delved extensively into Dylan's Jewish heritage and the influence of Judaism in his work. In Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Seth Rogovoy, an award-winning critic and expert on Jewish music, rectifies that oversight, presenting a fascinating new look at one of the most celebrated musicians of all time.

Rogovoy unearths the various strands of Judaism that appear throughout Bob Dylan's songs, revealing the ways in which Dylan walks in the footsteps of the Jewish Prophets. Rogovoy explains the profound depth of Jewish content -- drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Kabbalah -- at the heart of Dylan's music, and demonstrates how his songs can only be fully appreciated in light of Dylan's relationship to Judaism and the Jewish themes that inform them.

From his childhood growing up the son of Abe and Beatty Zimmerman, who were at the center of the small Jewish community in his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, to his frequent visits to Israel and involvement with the Orthodox Jewish outreach movement Chabad, Judaism has permeated Dylan's everyday life and work. Early songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" derive central imagery from passages in the books of Ezekiel and Isaiah; mid-career numbers like "Forever Young" are infused with themes from the Bible, Jewish liturgy, and Kabbalah; while late-period efforts have revealed a mind shaped by Jewish concepts of Creation and redemption. In this context, even Dylan's so-called born-again period is seen as a logical, almost inevitable development in his growth as a man and artist wrestling with the burden and inheritance of the Jewish prophetic tradition.

Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet is a fresh and illuminating look at one of America's most renowned -- and one of its most enigmatic -- talents.

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About the Author:

Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic, radio commentator, musician, and author of The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books, 2000). His writing has appeared in Newsday, Haaretz, the Boston Phoenix, Hadassah Magazine, the Forward, and on the web at the Rogovoy Report (www.rogovoy.com). He lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he is editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living magazine. His grandparents were from Russia, and he has blue eyes.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

FROM CHAOS TO CREATION

The question I was asked more than any other (perhaps with the exception of “Are you going to interview him?” Answer: No) when I told people I was writing a Jewish biography of Bob Dylan was, “Isn’t he still a born-again Christian?” To which I always replied, “Who knows?”

Indeed, who knows? And in any case, it’s beside the point. This book sets out to make no claims about Bob Dylan’s past or present religious beliefs or self-identification. There are enough onthe-record comments from Dylan to support any viewpoint—he’s Jewish, he’s Christian, he’s Rastafarian, he doesn’t believe in any religion, or he finds G-d in music, religion in the songs.

All that being said, there are certainly indications, in his songs and in the little we know about his offstage life—which is surprisingly little, considering how much has been written about him, how many websites and discussion groups are devoted to him, and how fanatically curious his ardent followers can be about him—suggesting that Dylan has never fully abandoned the faith of his forebears. Rather, he has apparently taken very seriously his relationship to Judaism, a relationship that, as this book sets out to demonstrate, so fully and completely informs his life and his work—lyrically, thematically, musically, and otherwise—that it cannot be ignored as an essential aspect of both.

A funny thing happened when I began a mostly self-directed study of Jewish scripture—the Bible, the Talmud, the mystical writings comprising the Kabbalah, the traditional prayer liturgy—in my mid-thirties. Every so often, an image, a theme, or a phrase would jump out at me as something familiar. This wasn’t an echo of previous learning of Jewish texts—of that I had next to none. For me, the texts that I had memorized as a schoolboy—the words that I could access almost immediately in much the same manner that a yeshiva graduate can quote nearly any chapter and verse from the Torah—were the lyrics of Bob Dylan, which I began studying at age fourteen in 1974 and have continued to study with a regularity bordering on obsession ever since.

The great surprise that awaited me when turning my attention in midlife toward the rich trove of Jewish texts was that there was a significant overlap between the torah of Dylan and the Torah of Moses. For example, in the book of Prophets, Ezekiel recounts a vision of angels: “The soles of their feet... their appearance was like fiery coals, burning like torches.” And in the Bible, G-d warns Moses, “No human can see my face and live,” after the latter asks the Former if He would reveal his physical manifestation. These verses were uncannily familiar when I read them the first time in their original versions, as I knew them from Bob Dylan songs. “The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning,” Dylan sings in “The Wicked Messenger,” from 1967. And on the chorus of “I and I,” from 1983, Dylan proclaims, “One says to the other / No man sees my face and lives.”

One of the most rewarding ways of approaching Bob Dylan’s lyrics is to read them as the work of a poetic mind apparently immersed in Jewish texts and engaged in the age-old process of midrash: a kind of formal or informal riffing on the texts in order to elucidate or elaborate upon their hidden meanings. Perhaps the most famous of these riffs takes place in one of Dylan’s best-known songs, 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” his whimsical retelling of the Akeidah, the story in which G-d commands Abraham to bind Isaac as if for a sacrificial offering, which Dylan posits as a conversation between two jaded, cynical hipsters. U.S. Route 61, incidentally, is the main highway leading from New Orleans to Dylan’s birthplace in Duluth, Minnesota.

While the Abraham and Isaac story is one of the core legends of Western civilization, as far back as 1962, lyrics by the son of Abe Zimmerman reveal a familiarity with Torah far beyond the basics of the average religious school education. The song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” destined to become a civil rights anthem, borrows imagery from two biblical prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah, to which Dylan would often return for inspiration. The song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” one of his most beautiful love songs, gains added heft and resonance when one realizes that much of its symbolism is drawn from early chapters of the book of Daniel. And any attentive Dylan fan stumbling upon these verses in chapter 26 of Leviticus—“Your strength shall be spent in vain ...I will make your heaven like iron... You shall eat and not be satisfied...”—will recognize them as the raw material from which he shaped the 1967 song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”

Although facts about Dylan’s Jewish upbringing and practice are hard to come by given his notorious penchant for privacy, purposeful obfuscation, or even outright deception regarding his personal life, evidence from his lyrics, his public statements, and some undisputed biographical items add up to a convincing portrait of a mind profoundly shaped by Jewish influence, study, and belief, and a life lived largely as a committed Jew. Although Dylan grew up near the Canadian border in the cold, hard, iron-mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota—as one might imagine, not exactly a hotbed of Jewish communal life and culture—his nuclear and extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who lived in Hibbing or in the nearby port city of Duluth—where he was born and to where his family frequently returned—retained enough connection with Jewish tradition to observe the dietary laws, to mark the weekly Sabbath, and to stage a party the likes of which had never been seen in Hibbing when it came time for Dylan to become bar mitzvah in 1954. The teenage Bobby Zimmerman spent the next three or four summers at a Jewish camp in Wisconsin, and as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1959, he lived in a Jewish fraternity house.

Much has been made and written of Bob Dylan as a product of the American folk and blues traditions. Without question, Dylan’s specific art has always drawn very heavily on Anglo-American folk, African-American blues, gospel music, Tin Pan Alley pop, country music, and other styles of American music. Dylan’s genius has been to take them further, to combine them with other strains of music, and to foster a revolution in American music that saw rock triumph over sugary pop in the mid-1960s as the premier expression of the youthful counterculture.

But there is another context from which Dylan has sprung. While he may never have heard of Eliakum Zunser—and there’s no evidence that he has—and while he may be utterly unfamiliar with the folk-protest tradition that was part of the culture of his Russian Jewish ancestors back in the Pale of Settlement, there is still something of Zunser in Dylan, as much as there is of the folk-singer Woody Guthrie and the blues legend Robert Johnson. One of the very first original compositions that Dylan debuted in folk clubs in New York upon arriving there in 1961 was “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” based on Guthrie’s patented style of “talking blues.” From the earliest days of his career, Dylan—contrary to the received notion that he engaged in a deliberate cover-up of his background—wore his Jewish heart on his sleeve.

The Jewish influence on Dylan’s art, or on the practice of his art, goes deeper than a superficial or coincidental resemblance to that of Eliakum Zunser’s a century earlier. Like much blues and some folk itself, Dylan’s work stems from the ancient tradition of Jewish prophecy—not in the sense of foretelling the future, but rather in the sense that a prophet, or in Hebrew, a navi, is a truth-teller to and an admonisher of his people: literally, a “proclaimer.” The Prophets, whose sermons and declarations are collected in the biblical books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, were, in a sense, social critics—the original protest singers, if you will. They pointed out the hypocrisies and errors of their subjects’ ways, warning of punishments that could befall them and suggesting paths toward collective redemption. Some of them also recount in detail their encounters with G-d, or what we call their “mystical” experiences, and describe a future time when others will enjoy such intimate encounters with the Creator.

The biblical Prophets did not so much engage in the act of prophecy, in the sense of foretelling the future (although they did warn about what would happen to their listeners if they did not heed their words or the laws of G-d), as they engaged in sociocultural criticism. They warned against backsliding and immorality and blatant lawbreaking and foretold the bloody consequences of this behavior. In many ways, Jesus, too, fits into this tradition of Jewish prophecy, although Christians believe that Jesus was not just another Jewish prophet but rather the divine bringer of a new message and a new covenant with G-d.

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. As the great twentieth-century American theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the biblical Prophets, “The words in which the prophets attempted to relate their experiences were not photographs but illustrations, not descriptions but songs.” (Emphasis mine.) Throughout his career, Dylan has repeatedly returned to that very same prophetic tradition to infuse his songs with a measure of impact and dignity that s...

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