Bob Dylan’s Transfiguration

Bob Dylan with Joan Baez
Bob Dylan with Joan Baez in 1963, from Wikipedia, photo credit National Archives and Records Administration

“In my case, there’s a whole world of scholars, professors and Dylanologists, and everything I do affects them in some way. And you know in some way I’ve given them life. They’d be nowhere without me.”   Bob Dylan from the Rolling Stone Interview

The Interview

Last week Rolling Stone Magazine officially released their September 27 issue, which included a lengthy interview with Bob Dylan. The interview, which was conducted by Mikal Gilmore had generated some pre-publication press, especially around his quotes concerning plagiarism and U.S. slavery. I actually got my hands on a copy of the R & R mag yesterday and had a chance to read the in-depth discussion between Mr. Dylan and Mr. Gilmore. What I learned was very interesting and also very informative.

Transfiguration

Transfiguration – A marked change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis.     from the American Heritage Dictionary

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the interview is Bob Dylan’s belief…… that he was transfigured, when another person bearing the same name, died in a motorcycle accident in 1964. This is heady stuff indeed, but its inclusion makes for good reading. And that other person, who died in 1964 was named Bobby Zimmerman…..and…he was president of the San Bernadino chapter of Hells Angels at the time of his death. Even stranger still is the publisher’s footnote stating that the Hells Angels guy really died in 1961 almost at the same time that Bob Dylan (formerly known as Robert Zimmerman) got his first big break in the form of a NY Times interview.

The Fifties

Another important fact to note, when discussing the folk bard, is that Dylan was born right before Pearl Harbor and that he attended high school in Hibbing, Minnesota during the fifties. Not only were the 50s a more peaceful time, but also the future folksinger’s early life in the hinterlands of America may have been instrumental in the development of Dylan as a singer and social critic. A quick look and listen to some of the rock’n roll artists of that era will go a long way in learning about how somebody from those years might view the world. If you don’t agree check out this list of the top five R & R hits for that decade.  In descending order it includes Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley, Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets, Tutti-Frutti by Little Richard and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On by Jerry Lee Lewis. This list says a lot.

Other Interesting Topics

Other areas of discussion that caught my eye include a defense of borrowing and some thoughts on John Lennon. Plagiarism is a term tossed around the literary world a lot. In Dylan’s opinion this happens more often than it should be, for it is in unavoidable dilemma that any folksinger, poet playwright, writer or whatnot cannot create fresh material without borrowing from the past. For me that kind of says it all.

Bob Dylan and President Obama
President Obama rewarding Bob Dylan with the Medal of Freedom at the White House, from Wikipedia source NASA

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2 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s Transfiguration

  1. I think that the tale of Dylan’s transfiguration is another way for him to separate himself from his folk period with Joan Baez and his folk rock period when he toured with the Band in 1966. Fans and critics consider his body of work in this period to be his best — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Dylan tells Gilmore that the guy who created this music is dead, and that he became transfigured into a completely different person. This new person moved to Woodstock with Sarah Lownds, had children and hung out with members of the Band who lived in Big Pink. Together they wrote songs of a totally different nature from what Dylan had written and had played with the Band. The songs have come to be called Americana and seem rooted in an earlier time — America in the 1800s and early 1900s. Tapes of these songs came to be known as the Basement Tapes. Soon after, Dylan released John Wesley Harding, a complete departure from his earlier work and from the Basement Tapes. Each song has a strongly spiritual undercurrent. The most famous song on the album is All Along the Watchtower and in form, lyrics and music bears absolutely no resemblance to Visions of Johanna on Blonde and Blonde. In effect, the guy who wrote Blonde on Blonde had transfigured himself into a totally different person. Bob Dylan is a troubador who tells tales. All his songs are tales rooted in English folk ballads, Black blues, hymns and gospel. These songs are often mysterious, superstitious, morbid. In his interviews, Dylan spins more tales. So is Bob’s story about being transfigured when he had his motorcycle accident true? I think it’s true like The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest on John Wesley Harding is true. They are both parables with spiritual import.

    1. Leon,

      Thanks for the in-depth analysis. For me I didn’t really follow Dylan until he went electric. I agree with you that Dylan did not mature as a songwriter and singer until he left the folkies. However, the idea of a transfiguration came from his summer interview in Rolling Stone Magazine. According to Dylan the passing of the Hell’s Angels leader, Robert Zimmerman occurred back in the early sixties just as the young man from Minnesota was jumpstarting his folksinging and recording career.

      Thanks again for the response.

      Hank

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