Friday, November 18, 2022

Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs by Greil Marcus - But is it a Biography?


A biography is simply defined as an account of someone's life written by someone else. Many biographies are chronological while others are thematic.  There have been many biographies written about Bob Dylan.  Just a few of them are:

Dylan : a biography / Bob Spitz.Author  

New York : McGraw-Hill, c1989.

Bob Dylan : a biography / Bob Batchelor.

Batchelor, Bob, author.


Santa Barbara : Greenwood, [2014]


And forget my name : a speculative biography of Bob Dylan / Stephen Scobie.


Scobie, Stephen

Victoria, B.C. : Ekstasis Editions, 1999.


Bob Dylan : behind the shades : a biography / Clinton Heylin.


Heylin, Clinton.


New York : Summit Books, c1991.

Dylan : a biography / Bob Spitz.

New York : McGraw-Hill, c1989.

Greil Marcus is an American author, music journalist, and cultural critic. He is notable for producing scholarly and literary essays that place rock music in a broader framework of culture and politics.  I had the pleasure of meeting him twice:

·        A symposium called Bob Dylan and the Band: What Kind of Love is this held at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan in 2010

·        World of Bob Dylan Symposium in 2019 in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Three of his books about Bob Dylan are:

Marcus, G. (2013). Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's basement tapes.

Marcus, G. (2006). Like a rolling stone: Bob Dylan at the crossroads.

Marcus, G. (2015). Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010

His latest book, the subject of this journal entry, is:

Marcus, G. (2022) Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography is Seven Songs

The Seven Songs in this book are:

  • ·        Blowin’ in the Wind (1962)
  • ·        The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964)
  • ·        Ain’t Talkin’ (2006)
  • ·        The Times They Are a Changin’ (1964)
  • ·        Desolation Row (1965)
  • ·        Jim Jones (1992)
  • ·        Murder Most Foul (2020)

Of these 7 songs, only Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are Changin’ are Dylan classics and are known to most followers of popular music.  Those two songs consider Dylan’s involvement in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and in a peripheral way may be biographical.  In The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll also refers to racial injustice.  Ain’t Talkin’, from the album Modern Times in my open should refer to Dylan’s refusal to give regular interviews or communicate with his fans.  Could Desolation Row mean that Dylan is desolate?  I don’t think so, but I don’t see biographical references in the song.  Jim Jones from the album Good As I’ve Been to You was arranged but not written by Dylan.  Murder Most Foul, Dylan’s longest song, addresses the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the context of the greater American political and cultural history.  It is really not biographical.

In my opinion some of Dylan’s love and anti-love songs may be biographical:

·        Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright

·        It Ain’t Me Babe

·        Boots of Spanish Leather

·        Tangled Up in Blue

What about

·        Bob Dylan’s Dream

·        Restless Farewell

Greil Marcus has written an excellent book, but it is appropriate for Dylan scholars and hard-core fans.  Casual fans should read the more traditional biographies.  Librarians have cataloged this book as Bob Dylan-Biography but should be cataloged as Bob Dylan-History and Criticism.


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