Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 5 August 2020

'Rough and Rowdy Ways': the literary references in Bob Dylan's new album

From allusions of Greek mythology and Shakespeare to mentions of Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake

Legendary US folk singer Bob Dylan released his first album of original songs in eight years on June 19, 2020. AFP
Legendary US folk singer Bob Dylan released his first album of original songs in eight years on June 19, 2020. AFP

Bob Dylan has released his first original album in eight years.

Entitled Rough and Rowdy Ways, the album swings between bluesy, overdriven head-boppers to introspective ballads that dive into war’s horrors, existential whirlwinds and gritty confrontations with death.

This is all done with the buoyant wordplay that we expect from the 79-year-old folk legend.

However, Dylan's lyrics in the new album also have a myriad of literary references, from allusions of Greek mythology and Shakespeare to mentions of Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake.

'I Contain Multitudes'

The first song of the album, I Contain Multitudes, takes its title from a line in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The crystal-clear guitar chords are a mere backdrop, acting as a shimmering banister that guides listeners along Dylan’s musings.

There are minimal changes to the music throughout the four-minute tune. If this tune sets the tone for the album, it's clear Dylan wants audiences to focus on his words rather than be carried away by musical arrangements.

Because he’s got quite a bit to say.

The first line of the second verse begins with the phrase “Got a tell-tale heart like Mr Poe”, a nod to the macabre writer’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart, which tells of a guilt-ridden narrator who confesses to murder after he hears his victim’s heart beating from his resting place beneath the floorboards.

The following line, “Got skeletons of the walls of people you know”, continues the reference and perhaps even alludes to two more of Poe’s stories: The Cask of Amontillado and The Black Cat.

The song is replete with other literary references. The line “Half my soul, baby, belongs to you” appears in the story The Angel of Forgetfulness by Howard Schwarz. In the tale, it goes: “For in this generation, half of my soul belongs to you and the other half to another, whom you must seek out.”

In the fourth verse, Dylan pays homage to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones. He also references Blake, singing: “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake”, referencing the English poet’s 1794 illustrated poetry collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience; Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.

'My Own Version of You'

The third song of the album, My Own Version of You, has Dylan riffing on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as he takes on the role of Victor Frankenstein.

“All through the summers, into January / I've been visiting morgues and monasteries / Looking for the necessary body parts / Limbs and livers and brains and hearts / I'll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do / I wanna create my own version of you.”

The second verse opens with the line: “It must be the winter of my discontent”, which is a nod to Shakespeare and John Steinbeck.

Sheakespeare’s Richard III begins with the line, “Now is the winter of our discontent”. Winter of Our Discontent was also the title of Steinbeck’s last novel, published in 1961.

The song goes on to mention Scarface, Marlon Brando’s Godfather, as well as Julius Caesar.

'Mother of Muses'

The track Mother of Muses could be referring to the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, who is also the mother of the nine muses.

The opening line, “Mother of Muses sing for me”, could be a reference to the first lines of Homer’s Odyssey, where the poet beckons the muse to sing to him of Odysseus’s adventures: “Sing for me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.”

In the fourth verse, Dylan references one of the muses, singing: “I’m falling in love with Calliope / She don’t belong to anyone, why not give her to me? She’s speaking to me, speaking with her eyes.”

Calliope, in Greek mythology, was the muse of epic poetry and of eloquence.

'Black Rider'

Fans are divided here. Some believe the titular character in the song Black Rider is a reference to Death, who is often depicted on horseback wearing a long-black coat. Others think the song is about modern-day America and is referencing Donald Trump. Dylan’s lyrics here are vague enough, leaving it up to interpretation.

"Black rider, black rider, you've been living too hard / Been up all night, have to stay on your guard / The path that you're walking, too narrow to walk / Every step of the way, another stumbling block"

The song’s title is a direct nod to The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets musical written by William Burroughs in collaboration with musician Tom Waits and theatre director Robert Wilson. The musical was based on a German folktale, Freischutz, which tells of a marksman who goes into an ill-fated contract with the devil to obtain a certain number of magical bullets that will hit their target without fail.

'Murder Most Foul'

The title of the closing track of the album comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where old Hamlet’s ghost tells his son of his death by saying: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is. But this most foul, strange and unnatural.” This basically means that, while murder is always horrible, this one was particularly horrific and unnatural.

The song unpacks John F Kennedy’s assassination, putting it in the context of greater US political and cultural history and delving into the evolution of 1960s counterculture. This is backed by delicate piano, strings and muted drums.

"The day they blew out the brains of the king / Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing."

The ballad also makes reference to Robert Johnson, The Beatles, Charlie Parker, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks and the Woodstock festival.

Updated: June 22, 2020 11:00 AM

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