-- By Tom Phillips
Bob Dylan is a serial disappointer, and that is part of what's kept him thriving as an artist for six decades. A Swedish friend tells me his nation is deeply hurt that Dylan declined to come to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. But this is just one of a long series of disappointments and shocks to his fans -- going back to the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, when the left's favorite folk-singer came out with a snarl and an electric guitar.
In 1967, after a year's hiatus attributed to a mysterious accident, he again came out with a new style that distressed his followers. Suddenly Dylan's words and music seemed thin and spare -- compared to the hard rock and smoldering satire that began in Newport and culminated with "Blonde on Blonde."
"John Wesley Harding" was the title track of his new album -- the name an approximation of an obscure 19th century Western gunfighter, John Wesley Hardin. The song is clearly a remake of Woody Guthrie's tribute to Pretty Boy Floyd, a Depression-era bank robber. Guthrie's epic is full of vivid details, of how Floyd gave from his loot to help poor farmers who'd been robbed by the banks. But Dylan's update seems impoverished. John Wesley Harding was a "friend of the poor," he begins, but never tells us exactly what he did for them. Likewise in a parallel to the episode where Pretty Boy fights and kills a deputy -- Dylan's version is a shaggy dog story, lacking detail and sense:
Twas down in Cheney County, a time they talk about --
With his lady by his side he took a stand.
And soon the situation there was all but straightened out --
He was always known to lend a helping hand.
Don't get me wrong -- I like this song. Rather than copy Guthrie's heroic theme, Dylan instead gives us an ironic sequel, an illuminating letdown. Guthrie was singing about a contemporary hero in the Thirties -- Pretty Boy Floyd was a real bank robber, and an inspiration to many in those hard times. By 1967 in America, the outlaw friend of the poor was no more than a legend, a dim recollection. John Wesley Hardin appears as in a faded old photograph, with an inaccurate caption. The song is simultaneously about the disappearance of the outlaw hero, and the endurance of an archetype.
Hardin himself never appears, just as Dylan didn't in Stockholm. All we have is a name, a reputation, a legend. Looking for the man in vain, we are turned back on ourselves to find a friend to the poor.
And that's why Bobby Dylan wins the prize. His brand of irony is the incongruity between poetic inspiration and personal absence, the discomfort we feel because he won't explain himself. If he'd showed up in Stockholm and delivered The World According to Bob Dylan, he'd be just another leader.
Instead, he sent a thank-you note. In it he addressed the complaints of some who have questioned whether his work is really Literature. In true Dylan style, he said he's too busy writing and performing to answer that question.
Rock on, Bobby.
Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips