Dylan Indeed Contains Multitudes

“I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods.
I contain multitudes.” — Bob Dylan

Of course Dylan contains multitudes. We’ve known this for ages, but only in more recent years have we discovered how vast the span of those multitudes really was.

He’d begun inhaling multitudes when he took deep dives into friends’ record collections when he went to Dinkytown in Minneapolis upon leaving home. When he landed in New York Dylan’s first stop was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street. It became a place to hang out, where he could continue his threshing of the American songbook.

I use the word threshing because it’s the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. I’ll carry that notion further and compare what he does to the magical process of baking bread. The ovens in Dylan’s mind were continuously processing, reconfiguring all these human experiences into the songs of his experience.

This process of sifting, baking and serving his delicious aromatic product (songs) to the world also got him accused of plagiarism. What’s apparent is that those accusations came from people who didn’t understand the historical basis of intertextuality.

It wasn’t till I heard Harvard Classics professor Richard F. Thomas speak at Duluth Dylan Fest in 2018 that the light went on most fully for me. Among other things, he talked about Intertextuality. At one point he cites a statement from T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Dr. Thomas, who had been a lifelong Dylan fan, began to see Dylan’s later source material more clearly than most because Thomas teaches the Harvard Classics and was thus more intimately acquainted with Ovid, Virgil and Homer than the average man or woman on the street. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Thomas by the editorial staff of Harvard’s Persephone:

When did you first begin to notice intertextuality between Bob Dylan and classical authors?

Richard Thomas: It really wasn’t until 9/11. Dylan had an album that came out on that morning called “Love and Theft.” Now I had noticed intertextuality of a similar sort in 1997 with the song “Highlands” from the album Time Out of Mind, a very long, narrative song that 2 has the refrain “My Heart’s in the Highlands.” So [that was from] Robert Burns… But it wasn’t really until the 2001 album “Love and Theft” [that I noticed intertextuality with classical authors]…Now if the intertexts are activated in the mind of the listener, it’s not just Vietnam, the war of Dylan’s youth, it’s all of these literary wars, including the Roman wars of Aeneas and the Civil Wars, for which they in some way stand.

Like many others who listened to I Contain Multitudes the day after it was released, my mind noticed how all these pieces were stitched together into a whole, but it would take a few days to isolate its component parts. Murder Most Foul similarly is an enormous patchwork quilt of references. What I’m going to suggest is that there’s a common denominator in the two.

If we consider I Contain Multitudes as a self-portrait, Murder Most Foul is a portrait of our generation. That is, that these are influences that we — or more precisely, the generation of Bob’s peers — have shared in common. Wolfman Jack, conspiracy theories about the assassination we all witnessed and lived through, the music, films, a historical tsunami of life-shaping inputs, including those Dylan himself showered on us, sometimes pelting, sometimes nourishing.

The string of images in both these songs strikes me as similar in construction to Desolation Row of his early songwriting, another sprawling cast of characters lined up along a flowing music track that serves as a lyric background landscape.

David Kinney, in his book The Dylanologists, breaks Dylan fans into eight categories from Pilgrims and Collectors to Front Rower-ers and Scholars. And then there are the Lyric Dissecters. This last category is probably the most energized by these kinds of songs. There are simply so many endless clues to follow, rabbit holes to enter. As Dr. Rollason notes on his Bilingual Culture Blog, “‘I Contain Multitudes’, clocking in at 4:36 minutes and, while shorter than its lengthy predecessor, still replete with allusions in numbers enough to keep the planet’s Dylanites happily occupied.”

The references to other poets have already been noted by many these past few days, most readily to Poe, Blake and Whitman.

I’m not going to do lyrics dissection here, as so many have been undertaking this already, but I did think the opening lines interesting enough to lay side by side with Whitman’s Song of Myself 51.

Today and tomorrow, and yesterday, too
The flowers are dyin’ like all things do.
— Dylan, I Contain Multitudes

The past and present wilt — I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
— Whitman,’Song of Myself, 51

Both poems begin with the trisection of time, Dylan’s conveying a looking back, and Whitman still looking to fill his next fold.

As with all things Dylan, much more can be said. Though many things have changed since he first appeared on the scene, one thing that’s unchanged is that you never know what revelations tomorrow will bring.

When I was young I audited a class on the Book of Revelation at Princeton Seminary taught by the esteemed Greek scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger. There’s a sense in which dissecting Dylan lyrics can be a little like interpreting the Book of Revelation, so rich with symbols. At the end of the semester, after teaching all the various ways that this last book of the Bible had been interpreted he was asked by a student, “And what do you believe?” He smiled and said, “The Book of Revelation attracts people who are cracked, or leaves them that way.”

Can the same be said of obsessive Dylanite Lyric Dissecters? I dunno. The puzzles are many and considerably problematic while remaining immensely entertaining.

Related Links

“Go Away Bomb:” — -Dylan Writes A Song for Izzy Young
Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song
Whitman’s Song of Myself, 51
Harvard Classics Prof Pulls Back the Curtain to Reveal New Insights on Dylan’s Art
An Interview with Richard F. Thoomas on Bob Dylan and the Classic by the Harvard Persephone Editorial Staff

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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