Fundamental Dylan Insights: A Review of Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature

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Bob Dylan and his music has been analyzed, collected, inspected, dissected, occasionally corrected and often rejected, though sometimes the criticism is misdirected.

Needless to say, his work has been scrutinized from nearly every angle, yet new books with new approaches continue to unearth new details and insights overlooked that may have a bearing on the understanding of his songs, his music and his life.

The book I have in mind here is not new, but one which provided what I consider a significant insight about the Bobster. I’m referring to Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature. Bowden’s premise is best expressed in the review that accompanies it at

Bob Dylan is not a poet. He is a singer-songwriter, a performing artist. The unit of his art, as collected and documented by his intended audience, is the live performance. Right now, no existing technological tool can give researchers ready access to his entire corpus of work. Revised from the author’s Ph.D. dissertation (UC Berkeley, 1978) and again from its first edition (Indiana UP, 1982), Performed Literature develops a methodology for close analysis of verbal art that is heard, not seen, using as comparative examples 24 performances of 11 songs by Bob Dylan. The second edition adds a preface, two major appendices and one minor one, and a detailed index.

Two quick notes here. First, this book was written before his Never Ending Tour began, which is a form of verification that she was dead on, that Dylan’s art really is about performance. Second, that she is no longer correct that is “no existing technological tool” that can give researchers ready access to his entire corpus of work.

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There are Dylanologists collecting and compiling everything now, and the advent of the internet and low cost reproduction technologies has helped expedite these processes, though for the most part Bowden is correct that most people do not have access. YouTube will give you a lot, however. And the written reviews of nearly every concert from the beginning of his career, which can be found at, often provide good guidance as regard his manner of delivery in various places and spaces over time.

The book is not a “pop” book produced by a major New York publisher and thus has not received widespread visibility, but this review at is what prompted me to acquire it:

I’ve read most of the books about Dylan out there — this one’s the best. Bowden argues that dylan’s lyrics cannot be thoughtfully analyzed without also considering the music and the performance — thus the title, “Performed Literature”. Bowden’s writing is clear, forceful, and engaging.

Chapter one is titled Protests. The second paragraph captures one essence of what caught peoples’ attention about his work in the beginning.

“Throughout the sixties Dylan stayed a step ahead of other rock musicians, two steps ahead of his audience, and a city block or country mile ahead of the grown-ups. Other singers folllowed his lead after 1962, as Dylan released albums of rough-edged impromptu performances rather than the smoothly produced songs then expected of commercial recordings.”

When Dylan switched from acoustic to electric he transformed his sound from white rural folk to black urban and electric blues. As rock went increasingly frenetic with shreiking electric and acid rock, Dylan pulled back and re-opened the way to calmer country music, which other musicians again followed into the soft rock arena. Poetry was the center of all of it, and a cerebral approach that enabled songwriters like Simon & Garfunkel and Jim Morrison to find a voice.

But this first chapter is more about how Dylan’s approach to singing his protest songs became a characteristically Dylanesque manner of performing that is stylistically a unique fingerprint of the songwriter. Bowden then takes an in depth dig into some of the details of “Hard Rain” that help explain the particular effectiveness of this song.

In the second chapter Bowden talks about developments in Dylan’s style, noting how Dylan fused the various streams of American folk music from black traditional music to white rural “hillbilly” music to country western as well as the blues. It’s in this chapter that I found one of her most significant insights regarding his songs. She takes pains to show that Dylan’s songs, even when written in the first person “I” narrative, do not necessarily indicate that it is Dylan speaking from himself.

“Let me pause to make an emphatic point. The narrator in the lyrics of a Dylan song may show some attitude toward women, toward war, toward authorities, toward whatever. But the ‘I’ in a song is not Bob Dylan. Like poems, songs can sometimes rework into an artistic pattern the songwrtier’s own experiences. But a song is absolutely not biographical evidence.”

Everybody tries to guess what this song or that is about, and Dylan’s response is, “Some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.”

Bowden then takes a deep dive in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” from his Blonde on Blonde album, unwinding not just the lyrics but again the manner in which it is sung.

I was once asked which was Dylan’s best album and when I said I had a hard time picking just one per decade this person said it was Blonde on Blonde. Bowden notes here in this chapter that Dylan himself once called Blonde on Blonde his best. “The closest I ever go to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold… I haven’t been successful in getting it all the time.”

After laying the above foundations, chapter three is where Bowden get down to underscoring that it’s not just the songs that matter, but that his performances are the key. When Dylan was asked by Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine with Ralph Gleason, if there were any albums or tracks that Dylan felt were especially good, the artist replied, “On any of my old albums? Uhhh… As songs or as performances?”

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Very early on Dylan had a sense in which the performance was the thing. That is why you can hear the same song in different ways at different periods of his career. Compare “It Ain’t Me, Babe” as it was initially recorded with the fire-hot version that sizzles from his live performance on the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Bowden is astutely attuned to the manner in which Dylan can use vocal inflections to put quotation marks around a word when sung so that it’s meaning is altered.

In chapter three she uses a magnifying lens to focus on “Just Like A Woman” to bring new insights that a careless listener might have missed, nuances which most Dylan fans fully grasp.

Chapter four begins by pointing out that too deep of a study of the “how” a song was written results in missing the strength and power of that song. When Poe wrote about how he wrote The Raven, it was the dreariest of documents, whereas the poem itself crackles. “Like a Rolling Stone” becomes the topic of dissection here.

Bowden goes on to discuss effects, improvements and aesthetics before closing the book off with nearly 100 pages of appendices compiling texts, resources, a list of Dylan’s albums and suggestions for those who intend to continue the work of analyzing his performances.

Bottom line: Betsy Bowden has made a useful contribution to the appreciation and understanding of Dylan’s music. It’s apparent he’s made an impression on the author, and for those who are fans this book can be a useful resource.

It should be noted that the above book review was written before Dylan received his Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” A case could be made that what Dylan has created is not an either/or proposition. For the record, that’s my take. How do you see it?

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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