I do not know Bob Dylan. I will admit I know his voice, I know his commentary (or lack thereof) to reporters and journalists, his complex attitude, his talent on the harmonica, the guitar, and even both at once. While all these characteristics, talents, and features of Dylan are revealing in a sense, none satisfy my desire to know Dylan. To know something, or someone in this definition, is to be able to understand the intentions behind their actions and excavate the meaning they want you to find in their words. Knowing does not demand physical interactions, but it does demand a closeness. One has achieved this knowing with a proximity to the person, that, without which, the relationship is superficial. The central problem I have in listening to Dylan’s music is that I struggle with finding meaning in his words while I do not know him.
The closest connection I have felt with Bob Dylan was the first time I heard “All The Tired Horses.” The reason I felt connected to him in this moment was not because I began to understand him, but because the lyrics voiced my own internal dialogue. Although Dylan did not write this song, his adaptation of the words is an inherently individual spin on folk tradition. In the song, there is no extended musical entrance. Instead, there is an immediate transportation into what sounds like a dream world: three women sing in a melodic and ethereal style. I was surprised by Dylan’s distancing himself from the song (after all, I am trying to get to know him), but I was comforted that he felt his message in this Self Portrait track was still conveyed, or perhaps conveyed best, by other people.
At the start of “All The Tired Horses,” the three women call out: “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done? Hmm” A distorted sound creates a spiritual effect on the music, but this simple statement and question reflect a normal and everyday experience. Horses sit, tired and unenthused with their journey. Meanwhile, their owner is frustrated and exhausted, hoping that the day can eventually continue without more struggles. When this phrase echoed off of the classroom speakers, I immediately expected a fascinating narrative to follow. Soon, however, my understanding of how Dylan planned to continue shifted: the next line of the song was a repetition of the same exact phrase, as was the next line, and the next. It was inevitable, I thought. My mind jumped to a reflex I have with all of Dylan’s songs: loss of control over my own listening. The familiar spiral of disconnect began, in which the gap widens between Dylan and I. My understanding of his words inches further and further away from my grasp. Not much happened in the song, and because of this, so much happened in my mind. I tried to pick apart the pieces and rearrange them. I felt dissatisfied by the limits the song imposed on my listening, as if the music was not interested in entertaining my curiosity.
Momentarily, I tried to readjust my listening without a desperate search for meaning. Through this deliberate choice, I hoped the song would reveal itself. I will admit that the song, even with my fixation on meaning, was entirely calming and uncomplicated. I was the sole instigator of the trouble, but I was not ready to let my frustration dissolve. I felt myself enter this state of hyper-awareness in which everything became magnified without my intentions. The music of the song was like a lullaby, but this was outcompeted by the repetition of lyrics like a nagging reminder of my inability to find answers. I was at once transported by Dylan, but also held rigidly in one place.
This difficult dynamic between Dylan and me, or the creator and the receiver, is also present in other forms of writing apart from lyrics. While sharing views on the craft of short stories, Flannery O’Connor directs her attention to the need to find answers and the significance of meaning. She illustrates how my desperate personal search to locate meaning is, in fact, universal. In discussing her short story “Good Country People,” O’Connor shares:
When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully (96).
Here, O’Connor touches on the collective uncertainty of meaning in writing. There is a burden placed on the creator to form an absolute, “abstract” meaning that transcends the entire piece. When the story reaches the reader, or the listener, they rely on the author to create meaning in each of their words. Similar to how I expect Dylan to communicate meaning, O’Connor’s readers depend on her to incorporate a meaning that is both easily traceable and communicable in her stories. The reality, however, is that meaning is experiential and not predetermined. O’Connor notes that meaning cannot be condensed into a summary because there is no meaning that exists beyond the boundaries of experiencing the story itself. If she were to enforce a meaning on the reader, her process of writing, she claims, would be inauthentic.
In trying to “experience that meaning more fully,” I struggle with consistency as opposed to complexity in Dylan’s music. His more focused or “attuned” lyrics frustrate me because I am forced to see, while listening, that I cannot be satisfied without knowing him or his intentions (Smith). In his more lyrically and musically complex songs, like “Changing of The Guards,” the amount of content obscures and almost replaces my search for meaning. “Changing of The Guards,” unlike “All The Tired Horses,” is Dylan’s own folk work. He illustrates a tale that has little clarification from beginning to end: “a good shepherd grieves,” while “the captain waits above the celebration,” and “angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times.” This song seems like a blurred snapshot of Dylan’s childhood traveling carnival: a mysterious collection of people all living in a world of fantasy. The listener enters Dylan’s scene of “Eden,” albeit one that is “burning,” with little preparation or time to understand the conditions of this world. The song is overwhelming but satisfying in that I know it makes little sense: I do not have to search for meaning in the exact same way I do when the pace is slowed, and the lyrics repeat. In “Changing of The Guards,” Dylan demonstrates his developed understanding of folk music. In this genre, there is no linear progression but rather a continual dialogue exchanged between those who choose to and are qualified to partake in it.
Throughout Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan displays his personal fascination with the folk genre. He reflects on, and is candid about, the simultaneous pressure and excitement of becoming another folk artist. Throughout his autobiography, Dylan does not diminish the challenges he faced when entering a community with rich history and many of his idols. On meaning in this style of music, Dylan states:
A folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening (71).
Here, Dylan’s pointed commentary captures a key discovery of his in the genre: folk music is both restrictive and malleable. Meaning, in folk terms, is everchanging and shapeshifting—there is no singular meaning in this style of music. Although this may appear freeing, in reality it is binding. In a way, the requirements for meaning in folk music are not scripted. In other words, the direction given is limited direction in which the artist must arrive at meaning for themselves. As one example of an artist in this contradictory landscape, Dylan must work in conjunction with our demands and the demands of the folk genre, all while finding his own distinct style. This generated framework prevents one party from having total control, but simultaneously allows for a chaotic dynamic between artists and their listeners.
In this world of music with little organization, I envy those with strategies to locate meaning. To me, A. J. Weberman is the archetype of a certain listeners confidence. In his dedication to and development of the complex theories garbology and Dylanology, Weberman has created a belief system to navigate Dylan both as a person and as a question. He appears to have no struggles with the demands of knowing Dylan like I do and relies on his theories to provide him with answers. I know that Dylan and Weberman have met, talked, and shared, but even with discussions, Weberman must be so secure in his theories that any discussion with Dylan only further confirms his beliefs. The way I understand Weberman is that he has not tried to know Dylan, like my pursuit, but has instead made a lifestyle of Dylan. Meaning, for Weberman, is embedded in his theories that he believes no one has the power to disprove. He does not need to locate meaning beyond this. In contrast, I do not have a reliable belief system to help me find uncontestable meaning. This is not to say that I want to rifle through Bob Dylan’s garbage for hidden treasures or secrets, or that I want to invade a space that is not mine. This is to say, however, that I wish I were the architect of a theory so absurd yet so precise that my need for knowing would be satisfied.
Although I am not as confident as Weberman, I am temporarily comforted in my quest for meaning when I think of Dylan not just as a creator, but also as a listener like myself. After all, Dylan cannot create without foundation and inspiration to aid him. An example of Dylan as a listener first and foremost is shown through the way he reacts to his initial experience of the song “Pirate Jenny.” Dylan reflects on this revelation in Chronicles: “This heavy song was a new stimulant for my senses, indeed very much like a folk song but a folk song from a different gallon jug in a different backyard. I felt like I wanted to snatch up a bunch of keys and go see about that place, see what else was there” (275). This “stimulant” of “Pirate Jenny” redefines folk music for Dylan and challenges the conditions of his own creativity. The song escapes his understanding because it exists in a place so removed from what he knows. He hopes that he can “go see about that place,” and learn its secrets. The world of “Pirate Jenny,” in this way, is a “known unknown” to Dylan (Rumsfeld 00:14-00:19). In other words, he knows the world the song lives in exists, but its details remain an unknown while he cannot access this world.
Dylan uses this obsession with “Pirate Jenny” to create another song that excavates its meaning. For Dylan, trying to find meaning through song is the most practical approach. His response to Brecht, “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” is both ominous and threatening like “Pirate Jenny.” Through this song, he is able to capture Brecht’s tone for a moment. The pattern of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” like the minimalistic music of “All The Tired Horses,” forces the listener into a state of perpetual anticipation. The first stanza presents an ordinary lifestyle with a “wife and five children,” as if the stakes are not high in this fictional story. Then, at the end of the stanza, Dylan states that there is something to be lost: “... And his cabin fallin’ down.” Once there is something at stake, each stanza outcompetes the loss presented in the previous stanza: “Your baby’s eyes look crazy,” “The rats have got your flour,” “You prayed to the Lord above,” and “Your grass it is turning black/There’s no water in your well.” Like “Pirate Jenny,” the listener wonders why this world has to be so lawless and corrupt with no clear direction. Stranded in a state of panic, the listener begins to ask: “Did Dylan find his meaning or is he just toying with our dedication?”
In the last stanza of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” the results of Dylan’s search for meaning become voiced in his lyrics. He says: “There’s seven people dead/On a South Dakota farm/There’s seven people dead/On a South Dakota farm/Somewhere in the distance/There’s seven new people born.” This final section exudes a feeling of defeat—seven people, with their death foreshadowed, could do nothing to prevent their failure. Much like the role of meaning in music, the competing ideas of death and birth illustrated in this stanza symbolize the way control operates in the universe. In this way, the story Dylan works hard to cultivate, or his search for the meaning of the known unknown, ends abruptly with all possibility of control quickly disappearing. At the same time of this death, somewhere beyond, in that “different gallon jug in a different backyard,” there are “seven new people born.” The real trouble for Dylan is not the “death” of the people, or the death of a meaning, but the emergence of this new meaning in an unattainable realm.
It is agonizing, like the life of Hollis Brown, to acknowledge that there is meaning we can never see. This constant emergence of new meaning compels us to latch onto those we believe can figure out how to find it. Bob Dylan, as “the voice of a generation,” is not only relied on to be a prophet of song but also to have a universal understanding of our needs. Dylan’s listeners are demanding (and I do not exclude myself). We demand that he operate on a level far beyond our reach, but also expect him to sit beside us and guide us with his words and lessons. In fact, these impossible expectations force both Dylan and his listeners to misunderstand each other, rather than to cultivate a deeper understanding. In my own participation in this drama, I recognize that I may depend too greatly on Dylan. I do so because I believe in the power of song as a capsule of communication: there is more to say before and beyond a song, but all that is available is what lives in the final product.
In this capsule, Dylan is the only person who knows why the space of a song includes all that it does or only what it does. There is no one else who can tune into that same “wellspring of creativity” (Dylan 440). In “Words in Songs,” Mark Booth explores this distinctive quality of song:
The singer sings, we generally say, for his audience. The performance is, in the first place, for its audience in the sense that it is going on in front of listeners as an object of their attention ... the singer’s words are sung for us in that he says something that is also said somehow in extension by us, and we are drawn into the state, the pose, the attitude, the self offered by the song (14-15).
The song, according to Booth, is created to be shared. In this way, I do not feel guilty as a listener for wanting to have my questions answered. I am an audience member and am taking time to entertain the experience of the music: it is the “object” of my attention. However, I do recognize that, like Booth, I must understand that song is a cooperative experience. In “Positively 4th Street,” Dylan underscores the tension in building this cooperation. Dylan cries out to his listener(s): “I wish that for just one time/You could stand in my shoes/And just for that one moment/I could be you/.” Here, Dylan wants to become the listener like he was with “Pirate Jenny.” He wants to be transported “just for that one moment” back to that place of simplicity in which he was a fly on the wall. This line is honest and revealing, and makes the listener empathize with what he has to say. However, it is important to treat the song with caution as Dylan is a performer and this urge to understand may be an act.
In this song, although he is seemingly well intentioned, Dylan ultimately encounters difficulty in reconciling his relationship with his listeners. He soon continues on to say: “Yes, I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is/To see you.” This section shows, on the surface, that Dylan does not only want his audience to stand in his shoes, but to also realize how they can oftentimes be more draining than energizing. Dylan impels his own listeners to be artists and to experience his same burden of responsibility. The “drag” that Dylan identifies is his struggle of releasing interpretable art into the world. Once his songs are released into everyday life, the search for meaning begins and the magic almost fades away.
I return to “All The Tired Horses” because it forces me to reconcile with meaning in my listening process. The song has a dual effect, in that it both quiets and reinforces my desire for meaning. The female singers proclaim that the horses are tired, and they too, even with time to reflect, do not know how to go about their dilemma. Disregarding the literal context, this dilemma speaks to my own struggles with understanding meaning. The question “How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” is another way to vocalize my own confusion. I was at first frustrated by the song because of its restrictions, but now realize I was impacted because of its accuracy: the song sees through my inability to sit still with the words Dylan shares. After all, “All The Tired Horses” is unexpectedly Dylan. I anticipated more complexity and a disorganized tour through the “wellspring of creativity.” Like Christopher Ricks states in Dylan’s Visions of Sin: “Dylan isn’t the type to envy the lilies of the field, but he knows why you and I might” (124). In other words, Dylan knows what we as listeners want to hear, and what is good for us. What do we do, then, if having our needs met is not enough?